Read A Friend at Midnight Online

Authors: Caroline B. Cooney

Tags: #Fiction

A Friend at Midnight (14 page)

Mom was screaming now. “You cannot drop out of college!”

Nathaniel's chin quivered. He didn't often hear raised voices, and they upset him. He wasn't afraid of swimming pools or planes, but he was afraid of anger.

Me too, thought Lily. And I have more of it than anybody. She picked him up and he buried his face in her shoulder.

“I can quit, Mom,” said Reb. “And I have. They've offered me a job at the base camp too. They need somebody for computer entries.”

“You're going to be a
? Doing data entry for a bunch of engineers?” shrieked Mom, and of course this was one of the problems with Freddie—he wasn't mapping where pods of sweet old whales swam; he was mapping where oil rigs could be established. Politically correct environmentalists they weren't.

Reb assumed a bright cheerful expression. “Let's talk about
dress, Mom! What a beautiful mother of the bride you'll be.”

In her dangerous voice, the one that meant she would just as soon iron Reb's skin as her shirt, Mom said, “Finish your degree, Rebecca.
have the wedding.”

But Reb had inherited that very voice. “I'd like to live here until the wedding, Mother, but I could just as easily live with Freddie's family and have the wedding in Texas.”

Whoa, thought Lily. Serious blackmail. Lily stepped in to give Mom time to chill. “No honeymoon, Reb? That schedule sounds pretty tight.”

“My entire life will be a honeymoon.”

“There's no such thing,” snapped Mom. “Nineteen is not old enough to know your mind, Reb. It's too easy to make a mistake.”

“Do not bring your failed marriage into this, Mother. I do not plan to ruin my marriage the way you ruined yours.”

When dinner was in the oven, and Lily had fixed iced tea and Reb and Mom were stirring their tea and pretending they still liked each other, Reb produced a bride's magazine. “Look!” she said to Nathaniel. “This is what you'll wear at my wedding.”

In an all-white shot—white carpet, walls and flowers—a tiny blond boy in short white pants, white bowtie and white dinner jacket simpered over a white velvet pillow.

“Aaaaaaaagh!” screamed Nathaniel, quite reasonably, Lily thought. “No!” he said, a rare word for him.

“Nathaniel, you'll be adorable,” Reb protested.

“I wouldn't wear that on Hawwoween,” Nathaniel told her.

“How old is this kid?” demanded Reb. “There's something wrong with the water in this house. Michael acts thirty-five, and now Nathaniel thinks he's in seventh grade. It wouldn't be the end of the world to dress like that,” she told Nathaniel.

do it, then,” he said.

Reb looked at her family as if they were roadkill. In Freddie's family, people would be enthusiastic and three-year-olds would know their place. “On Saturday,” she said, and kindly enlarged on this for any unintelligent people in the room, “which is tomorrow, Freddie is coming out by train. He will meet me at the church. I‘ll bring him back here for lunch, Mother. Please make an effort to be nice.”

“I'm always nice,” said their mother, not nicely.

Lily giggled. “We'll be nice, Reb. What do you want to eat? Is Freddie something annoying, like a fruititarian, or can we get pepperoni sausage pizza?”

“We are not ordering pizza for the very first time Freddie meets you! I want you to make a good impression.”

Mom looked like a bull in Spain. A stabbed bull. Because Reb didn't care what Mom thought about Freddie; she cared what Freddie thought about Mom. Mom was on trial.

I can't let them say anything more, thought Lily. Especially when the real fight is yet to come.

The sound of the front door opening interrupted everything. “Daddy's here!” shrieked Nathaniel happily, racing out of the kitchen. “Daddy, guess what?”

Lily hoped Reb would be nice to Kells. Reb always seemed faintly surprised he existed. But for once, Reb looked cheerful, perhaps knowing that Nathaniel would spill everything—his big sister was here! getting married! having a wedding! needing a ring bearer!

“Daddy,” said Nathaniel breathlessly, “we went where we went in the pane that time.”

“You never went in a plane,” said his father, laughing.

Kells came into the kitchen with Nathaniel riding on his shoulders, Nathaniel's favorite place in the whole world, saw Reb and grinned. “What a great surprise! Rebecca, what brings you home? I'm so happy to see you!”

she's getting
in six weeks,” began Mom, “but—”

Kells crossed the room and bent over Reb to kiss her while Nathaniel screamed in delight at the risk of falling off. “Congratulations,” said Kells. “You'll be a beautiful bride.”

It didn't please Reb that her stepfather was the one who said the right thing.

He's always been the one who says the right thing, thought Lily.

When Dad had left, several years ago, largely from boredom at having to be so suburban and maintain a family and a mortgage, Mom had been devastated. She pleaded with Dennis to come back, promising any concession. But Dad was in love with the word “divorce” the way Reb was now in love with the word “wedding.” Dad laughed out loud at the idea that he would return to anything as confining as a family when he could live alone and make no compromises or effort.

When it was Mom who fell in love, six months later, the entire family was astonished and offended, but the most astonished and the most offended was the one who had left: Dad. When he couldn't change things by throwing insults (“You
that stupid fat bore?”), Dennis Rosetti moved out of state.

All three of Dennis Rosetti's children held the stupid fat bore responsible. Lily and Michael had gotten over it. Reb had not.

So Reb smiled tightly at Kells and said nothing to him. “Help me unpack, Lily?”

Lily carried the heaviest suitcase and felt the dream drawing itself up, like enemy troops. The front hall, stairs and upstairs hall were filled with stuff: Christmas decorations that had never gotten boxed; winter clothes that had never reached the dry cleaner's; paperbacks waiting to be exchanged at the used-book store; little shirts Nathaniel had outgrown over the summer, or even last spring.

They went into Reb's old bedroom. Mom had started using it for overflow. Piles of litter oozed toward Reb's old bed.

“I didn't miss this chaos,” said Reb. “My dorm room is so neat, people at school call me the Cleaning Woman.”

“How did your roommate handle that?”

“I explained to her the first day what the rules were.”

“Sort of like God,” said Lily.

Reb giggled and flung her arms around Lily, and they tap-danced together.

“Oh, Reb,” whispered Lily. “I'm so happy for you. I'm so glad you love Freddie so much and that he loves you.”

“His family is perfect,” said Reb. “If only we had a family like that.”

Lily stiffened. “We do.”

Reb stepped away. She threw a suitcase on the bed and unzipped it vigorously. She had even packed neatly, every sock rolled up with its partner. But she didn't touch the contents. She folded her arms and spoke. “Now that we're alone, we need to have a crucial conversation, Lily. You have issues with Dad, which I don't pretend to understand. It's time to get over it. You have to grow up. Dad and I are very close. We talk on the phone all the time. He's thrilled with my decision to marry Freddie next month, and after going camping with us twice this summer, Dad loves Freddie as much as I do.”

? thought Lily. He
? Michael gets nothing, while some boyfriend of Reb's is Dad's new best friend?

“You have tried to destroy our family, Lily. I haven't pressed you about your motives. I do not think there's any point discussing what's already happened. But from now on, you have to behave.”

have to behave? How dare—

“Lily,” said Reb, “Dad will be giving me away. I can't put my real family back together and there's nothing I can do about Kells, but I can do something about the people who matter. I need you to telephone Dad tonight and apologize for cutting him out of your life. Right now, this evening over dinner, you stop poisoning Michael against him. Admit your role in this, Lily, and help Michael be friends with Dad again too.”

Lily could not breathe.

“My wedding is going to be perfect,” said Reb.

“Rebecca,” said Lily, and she knew she would never use her sister's nickname again because a nickname was affectionate, “you invite that snake and I won't be at that wedding.”

They stared at each other across a pink bedspread and a littered carpet.

“You ruin my wedding day and I will never forgive you,” said her sister. Rebecca walked out of the room and down the stairs.

Lily was acquainted with never forgiving.

It lasted a long time.


n spite of a wonderful day out on the water, Michael was filled with dread. He should never have let himself remember. It would just lead to another Dad sighting. He would see Dad coming out of a store or climbing into a car. It would be all he could do not to race after the guy. He would imagine himself leaping whole flights of stairs, jumping from high windows—anything to catch up.

Every time it happened, it was real, even when it wasn't. Who would have thought a Fluff sandwich could do this to him? Michael schooled himself to the sober courtesy that helped him stay emotionless. “Thank you for a wonderful day, Mr. Mahanna. See you, Jamie. Bye, Trey.” Michael got into the car with his stepfather and decided not to look out the window during the drive home. He examined his knees.

“Got a surprise at home, Michael,” said Kells, driving in his leisurely way, two fingertips on the wheel. “A very unexpected visitor.”

All thought and breath left Michael.
Dad! Dad's here.
Kells didn't joke or tease, so this was a fact. Dad was here.

To think Michael had wasted time with Jamie! How long would Dad stay? How much of the visit had Michael missed? This time Michael would get it right. This time—

“Rebecca's home from college,” said Kells.

Michael willed himself not to cry, but soaked up his own tears like a paper towel.

Kells turned into their street. Rebecca was out in the yard waiting for them. She was tall and thin, waving both arms high in the air, but her feet were motionless. Rebecca could always stand as if she went right down into the ground like a fence post. As if nothing could move her.

He thought of his father all the time, but rarely of his older sister. Yet she was the reason for it all. It was not until she was leaving for college that Michael had understood that a person could live somewhere else. He had the blinding, brilliant knowledge that he too could go away—but not to college—
could live with
He had phoned Dad, listing all the advantages and the things they would do together. It took several calls to convince Dad. Michael had promised not to be any trouble.

He had broken the promise.

As soon as Michael was out of the car, Rebecca kissed him hard and then shoved him away to look him up and down and yanked him back for hugs and then did it again. It was like a whipsaw ride at the county fair. “You're so tall!” she cried. “I'm so glad to see you! You're hardly even a little boy anymore. You're practically a teenager!”

He nodded.

“It's a good thing you never took over my bedroom, Michael, because I'm home for a while. Guess why I'm home.”

“You live here,” he said. He had almost forgotten what she looked like. She looked perfect.

“Freddie and I are getting married,” his sister said, and she smiled the widest, happiest smile in the world, and he was helpless; he smiled back. “I'm home to plan the wedding.”

Weddings were what grown-ups did.

My sister is a grown-up, thought Michael.

“You'll be in a tuxedo,” said Reb, “the one who ushers Mom to her seat, and when I marry Freddie, you'll be right there, smiling at me.”

He had been at a wedding once. When Mom married Kells. It hadn't been the kind with a church aisle and a long white dress. It was just family and friends in the backyard with the minister. Michael remembered the barbecue better than the wedding.

Nathaniel barreled out of the house and squeezed between Michael and Rebecca. He couldn't stand it when Michael paid attention to anybody else. He had a magazine picture to show Michael and Michael tried to avoid this, but Rebecca wanted him to look too, so he stared down at the photograph of a too-pretty little boy in white.

“Nathaniel will be the ring bearer,” said Rebecca. “Dressed just like that.”

Michael laughed. “Forget it,” he advised his little brother.

Since the second week in September was just right for eating outside, Kells lit the candles that were supposed to keep away the mosquitoes and Mom rallied and even located some dusty crystal bowls and filled them with water and floated flowers in them.

Over dinner, Rebecca told them about Freddie and Labrador and Texas while Nathaniel shouted to be heard and Kells asked all the right questions. Mom said safe things like did anybody want more ketchup. What power people had over each other. Lily could still remember her father's threats—“I'm going to leave this family!” he'd shout. And then he did. People usually did what they said, in Lily's experience. So Rebecca might well leave too. Whatever Rebecca dished out, Mom would have to take with a smile, or lose her.

“Lily, dear,” said Mom, who never called her Lily, dear, “will you get the ice cream?”

Lily went back into the kitchen. She decided on the bright red dessert bowls because Mom loved them. She put on a large tray all four kinds of ice cream she found in the freezer, the bowls, spoons, the ice cream scoop, extra napkins and a bag of cookies. Carefully she maneuvered toward the table.

“Guess what, Michael,” said Rebecca.

Don't do this to us, Rebecca, thought Lily. Michael cannot handle it. It will smack him in the forehead like a baseball. Pieces of nightmare split and multiplied in Lily's head like viruses.

“Michael,” said Rebecca. “Dad's coming for the wedding.”

A smile Lily had not seen in months spread across Michael's face. He began laughing in an extraordinary bursting sort of way, as if joy were coming out of his pores.
he repeated. “Dad's coming?” Jumping to his feet, throwing his arms around Reb, he cried,
“Dad's coming?”

Reb was beaming and laughing and they hugged each other and rocked back and forth and said over and over, “Yes! Dad's coming!”

Twelve months of not hearing Dad's voice on the phone.

One full year without so much as a card for his birthday.

A year without Christmas.

A year in which his father never asked to see a report card or to have a photograph of his only son.

And Michael didn't care.

Dad was coming.

Michael still thinks his father is perfect, thought Lily. He still wants to please Dad. It's like wanting to please God. You're never going to hear from Him, so why bother? Yet if you believe, you're always bothering.

Rebecca and Lily did not talk through the night. They did not talk at all. By choice, Lily did not pray. She knew how terrible her prayer would be—for violence against Dennis. Meanwhile, Michael would pray for love and the opposing prayers might slam into each other and get tangled and make it all worse.

Friday morning, school felt thin and pointless, sandwiched between that Teacher Work Day and a weekend Lily now dreaded. At lunch she shrugged about the class schedule she was supposed to follow, found Amanda and told her everything.

In her heart, Lily knew Amanda was a lonely person. Her life only looked perfect. Her brilliant, wonderful parents worked twelve hours a day, including commutes, and Amanda had essentially brought herself up. She was fine with it, but what she wanted for herself was a house like Lily's: busy, noisy and chaotic, with little boys to hug and read aloud to.

Amanda, like Rebecca, just wanted to get married. She wanted the husband and the home and children they would have together, and all the demands and the privileges these meant. Amanda didn't care about a career. Lily felt the reverse. She'd already been the parent, both to Michael and to Nathaniel. Lily craved the demands and privileges of life on her own.

Amanda said, “Did you keep the bill for the airline tickets?”

After the credit card bill arrived, Lily had gone to the bank and emptied her savings account and the bank had written its own check to the credit card company. Since she'd gone to a branch Mom and Kells didn't use, Lily was unknown to the bank, and all it was, was a transaction. The teller hardly noticed it going by. Then Lily canceled the credit card. “I kept the bill,” Lily told Amanda.

“So show it to them. That backs up your story.”

Lily's lunch tray was old. The plastic sides had gotten frizzled in the dishwashers and the edges rubbed against her palms like sandpaper. She didn't take any food off the tray. Hunger seemed distant and unknown. “It's Michael's story to tell if he wants to. And he doesn't want to.”

“So what?” said Amanda. “If Rebecca wants her father at her wedding, that's her privilege. But nobody should be confused about the kind of guy Dennis is. No matter what Michael thinks, you need to tell, because Michael can't go off with this guy again. And that could possibly happen.”

Trey Mahanna slid into the chair next to Amanda, facing Lily. “Hi,” he said, interested, because he knew perfectly well this was not in fact her lunch period.

Lily mustered a fake smile. “Hi.”

“So he's coming to the wedding,” said Trey.

The girls gaped at him.

“Michael called Jamie right away,” Trey explained. “Michael's thrilled.”

Lily hated it that all these perfect people—Trey's family, Freddie's family, Amanda's family—knew the flaws in Lily's; they were following her story like a soap opera. They had their favorite characters; they knew what episode they wanted next.

“Lily,” said Trey, looking awkward and nervous, “was the thing that your father did to Michael—was it like—well—sexual? Because my father says that—”

“No!” whispered Lily. “It was not! Don't you dare repeat or think or say such a thing. Don't you dare make things worse, Trey Mahanna. You and your father stay out of this!” It took such effort to keep her voice down. She was sorry she hadn't crushed Trey with a chair last year in Anger Management. Maybe right now she'd flip the table on him and smash his questioning jaw. “Stop speculating,” she hissed at him. “Stop trying to be helpful.
Just stop.

Lily worked at the orthodontists' that afternoon, her usual hours, three to five-thirty. Her job was to carry out cheerful little chores in a cheerful little way and she pulled it off until four-fifteen, when she looked up to see Trey.

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