Authors: Molly O'Keefe
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Humor, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Fiction, #Humor & Satire, #American, #General Humor, #Sagas
He saw her fierceness as something of its own—instead of just something standing in his way. And it was disarming to see her that way. Disorienting.
“When can you start with him?” Ty asked.
She blinked at Ty; her mouth opened and then shut. “I’m … I think you’ve misunderstood me. I don’t do the art therapy.”
“I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. I’m just the art teacher. Not a therapist.”
Of course not. Because that would just be too easy. He felt once again the sudden weight of caring for someone else. And not just feeding or clothing him, but making decisions on his behalf. And then worrying if every single decision was wrong or right.
“What’s going on?” Casey asked.
“Let’s go, man,” Ty said. “You’re not going back to class. And apparently I need to spend some time on Google.”
“I can help you find a therapist,” Shelby said, her hand stretched out as if to stop him. She had long fingers. The nails, though, were chewed down to nothing.
What, he wondered, stressed the implacable Ms. Monroe out so bad she had to gnaw on her fingernails.
“I have information on plenty of local counselors who might work.”
“Really?” Well, that was a relief. A big one.
“Really. Come by the Art Barn tonight after dinner. We can talk then.”
He felt the back of his neck getting hot, belated embarrassment for the way he’d talked to her last night. “Ms. Monroe—”
Her smile was a flash and then gone, like a fish underwater, flipping into the sunlight only to retreat to the cool depths. “You can call me Shelby.”
“Shelby,” he said, tasting her name, the sweet round sounds of it, no hard edges, so unlike the person. “Thank you. Very much.”
“You’re welcome,” she said without a smile and walked away, deeper into the school.
He hit the release bar to head out the door, Casey beside him.
“Do you have a date with Ms. Monroe?” Casey asked.
The hope in his voice, it was ridiculous. What was the deal with this kid? One minute Ty wanted to shake him, the next he wanted to laugh.
They stopped next to his beautiful Indian, and he unclipped his helmet from the handlebars and handed it to Casey.
“Come on,” the boy moaned. “Helmets are lame.”
Ty’s patience was so far past thin that he put the helmet over Casey’s head himself and pressed it down, mashing all that red hair farther into his eyes. “Why didn’t you bring the truck?” Casey moaned.
“Because I didn’t know I was breaking my son out of school.”
“This is lame.”
“Whine one more time, Casey, and I swear to God you can find your own way home.” Ty swung his leg over the bike and slid forward, making room for Casey on the back.
Casey didn’t say anything, he just got on the bike behind him, but instead of wrapping his hands around Ty’s waist, he held onto the back of his jacket. Ty wanted to tell his son to get a firmer grip, but it was all just a fight with Casey, and he was done for the moment.
A cold wind blew down the street as Ty took off, turning toward home, and he felt his son behind him like a kite in danger of being blown away.
At home, Shelby parked her car in front of the garage and gave herself a second before going inside. The roses beside the house swaying in the cold January wind looked like skeletons, still covered in the last blooms’ dead heads. They should have been trimmed back, maybe covered in burlap, but she’d never gotten around to it and probably never would. It would be nice to just yank them out so she could stop feeling guilty about them, but she’d just find something else to feel guilty about.
Like, for instance, not being an art therapist just to make Wyatt Svenson’s life a little easier. She was wholly aware of the power of incremental relief. The small things that, when everything was going to shit, made the difference between surviving a day and giving up. And Ty seemed like a guy in serious survival mode.
She caught herself chewing on her thumbnail and pulled it out of her mouth.
Another wind blew up and the roses rattled against the aluminum siding on the garage. They had planted the roses after Dad died, the summer of her freshman year in college. The morning of the funeral, Mom woke her up at dawn and they’d planted the rosebushes—red, pink, and white—in their pajamas.
That had been an act of celebration. Shelby wasn’t sure if Mom understood that at the time, she’d probably done it out of survival. Out of a need to be busy, to try
to make right something very wrong. But Shelby had planted those roses with joy.
The back door of the house opened and Cathy stepped out onto the porch. She crossed her arms over her mountainous chest and frowned. The universal sign that it had not been a good day.
Right. Here we go. I can’t sit in the car forever
She popped open her door. “How was your day, Cathy?” she asked needlessly.
“You don’t pay me enough for this, Shelby,” Cathy yelled, no doubt to be heard over the wind and perhaps just to yell. A day requiring never-ending patience with Mom sometimes needed to end with a little yelling off the back porch.
“What happened?” She crossed the gravel to the cracked cement steps. Another thing that needed to be fixed.
Cathy had control over her eyebrows in a way that could baffle and amaze. And wither. And when they arched like that, Shelby withered.
“I’m not a nurse. And that’s what you need. I’m a cleaning lady you pay to stick around to make sure she’s not burning the place down.”
“And she hasn’t. You’ve done a great job.”
Cathy came down the steps and flipped her long black braids over her shoulder. Once, Shelby got in the way of those braids and they’d smacked her face and stung, but not nearly as much as the pity in Cathy’s face at the moment. “Honey, I was happy to help out. But you need a nurse. A real one. Not a babysitter. She’s confused, angry. Secretive. I’m trying not to get offended every time she calls me ‘girl,’ because I know she doesn’t mean it, but …” She shrugged. “You don’t pay me enough for this.”
“I could pay you more.”
“It wouldn’t be enough.” Cathy’s eyebrows melted
back down to their regular place and her big brown eyes were sympathetic. “My sister’s been telling you about Glen Home.”
“I’m not putting her in a nursing home. We’re not there yet.” Cathy’s eyebrows were telling her she was wrong and Shelby bristled. Cathy’s sister Deena was a nurse who had a lot of experience in geriatric care, and she said Glen Home was a nice place. But it was still a nursing home. And she and her mother had made a promise to each other—they stuck together. “We’re
,” she reiterated, and Cathy threw up her hands.
“You’re more stubborn than your mother. And I don’t think that’s good for either of you.”
Stubbornness was really all they had going for them, so she’d stick with it.
“Is she awake?” Shelby asked. Mom had started taking a nap in the afternoon. Passing out between cleaning closets and searching for photographs long ago thrown out. She woke up around dinner refueled for her midnight campaigns of pudding making and searching for the keys to the garage.
The online support chat rooms called it sundowning. And Mom had started doing it about a year ago. That was about the last time Shelby had a full night’s sleep.
“Been asleep for a half hour. I made you some squash soup; it’s on the stove.”
Cathy grabbed her big quilted bag with the knitting needles sticking out of the top and endless little bags of grapes and cut-up carrots because she was always on a diet. “I’ll give you two weeks.”
“What did you think I was talking about?”
“I thought you were complaining. Asking for a raise.”
“I’m quitting, honey. Two weeks. You need someone like Deena now, not me.”
If Shelby were the kind of person to just melt into the ground, like the Wicked Witch of the West under that water, she’d do it. Right now. But Mom had raised her to be made of sterner stuff.
“Thank you, Cathy.” There seemed to be more she could say, but she didn’t really know how. So, she repeated herself. “Thank you.”
Cathy got in the little sports car that Shelby envied with all her heart, and Shelby watched her drive away until the plumes of dust kicked up by her leaving vanished.
Inside the house it was quiet and still. Dim late afternoon sunlight filtered through the rose curtains of the living room, and the hallway and kitchen all seemed to glow pink. It hid the shabbiness of the house, the fact that it needed massive renovation and a serious cleaning behind its rosy blush.
The house without Cathy would have been a disaster zone. Last year, Shelby had never known what she was walking into when she came home from work, but now that Cathy spent a few hours here every day, the chaos was organized into stacks. A thousand little stacks all over the house.
On the kitchen counter there was a pile of photographs. In a glance she realized they were all of her. An infant buried in pink blankets, a child in her Sunday best. A painfully awkward and serious adolescent at Bible camp.
A furious teenager in acid wash and a Shaker sweater, hiding all her anger behind good grades and Student Council.
Bored, she shoved the pictures away.
Identity projects didn’t work in retrospect.
Not for her.
* * *
“I’m sick of hamburgers,” Casey said as he took his plate to the sink.
“Doesn’t seem to slow you down any.” Ty sat back with his milk and shoved his plate over to Casey so he could take it to the sink, too.
“I’m hungry. It would just be nice to eat something besides hamburger.”
“I don’t know, man, you’re the adult.” The plate clattered into the sink and Casey got ready to huff off to his room to slam the door, which was how a lot of conversations between them ended. It had been radio silence since leaving the school. Once they got home Casey had gone to his room and Ty had gone to the garage, to stare at the carburetor in pieces on his workbench and try to think of what to say to his kid.
He still didn’t know what to say, but he knew he had to say something.
“We need to talk about school.”
Casey gave it his entire repertoire. Eye-rolling and sighing, then a giant slouch against the counter, as if every single vertebra had just given up, all at the same time.
“If you get in trouble again, you’re going to get suspended.”
“So. You can’t.”
“That school is lame, Ty. Everyone here is a hick.” Ty put up his hand, but Casey kept going. “They’re rednecks. They are. And I don’t know why we had to come out here.”
“Because you needed a fresh start, Casey. You … your mom, you burned every bridge you had in Memphis. Don’t you get that?”
Casey’s silence said it all. He rubbed his thumb along the grout around the sink.
“You’re beginning to burn those bridges here,” Ty said.
“Mr. Root is a dick.”
“That’s it. We’re getting a swear jar.”
Ty tended to agree about Mr. Root, but if he said that to Casey it would be like giving the kid permission to be even more disrespectful and they needed Mr. Root, they needed that school, they needed to make all those things work.
“He is!” Casey protested. “He took one look at me and hated me.”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Then give him a reason not to!”
Ty rolled his shoulders against the hard-backed chair. He’d rented this house unseen and furnished, and it looked like a house in a catalog. A fussy one. The white table and chairs had that fake worn-in look. The couches looked comfortable but weren’t. The refrigerator door was built to look like the cabinets. Who the hell wanted that? A camouflage fridge.
Every single part of his life was unrecognizable. It was disorienting. He didn’t know whose life this was.
“Don’t you want to be more than the kid who always gets in trouble?” he asked.
Casey stared out the window over the sink toward the backyard, which looked at this point, in his total neglect of it, more like an overgrown field.
“That dog’s back,” Casey said.
“That skinny stray. He’s back in the garbage.”
There were a ton of strays out here. People dropped dogs along this highway like they were black bags of trash. “I’ll handle him.”
“He looks hungry.”
“Don’t … don’t you have anything to say?”
Casey looked back over at him and smiled, but it was mean. Calculating. A chilling smile on an eleven-year-old.
Ty tried so hard to give Vanessa the benefit of the doubt and he did his best not to bad-mouth her in front of Casey, but when he smiled like that—like he was small and vicious, and just looking for someone to hurt—he was the spitting image of Vanessa. “Mom always said that about you. You were the guy in trouble.”
Vanessa had told Casey more lies than truth about Ty, but this particular thing was plenty true. There was nothing that Casey had done or was contemplating doing that Ty had not already done and been kicked out of school for. But again, he didn’t know how to tell that to his kid without making it sound like permission.
“We’re not talking about me,” he said, and Casey looked away. The “bullshit” he was thinking, though, was loud and clear.
“This is a new school, Casey; no one knows you here. No one knows anything you’ve done. You get to be someone totally different—”
different!” he cried. “I’m me.”
“I know, but there’s more to you than what Mr. Root thinks. Isn’t there?”
More to you than this troublemaking, sullen kid you’re showing me. Please. Please. Let there be more
“Come on, Ty, that picture was just a joke—”
“I’m not laughing!” He turned on Casey. “Don’t you get that? I’m not laughing.”
Casey had these big blue eyes. His Svenson grandparents’ genes showing up. But those blue eyes, sometimes they seemed like they hid deep waters and dark, scary fish, while other times they were as shallow as a puddle. This was one of those puddle times, and Ty
worried that he was never going to understand this kid. Or maybe … maybe Casey was just too far gone to reach. The foster mother that Casey had been placed with had told Ty that the most important years for a kid’s development were between the ages of birth and six—that’s when they learned how to live in this world.