Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
I sit on the edge of her bed and realize her cup of vodka and juice is back on her nightstand along with an opened packet of sleeping pills. She smiles at me. I take a deep, controlled breath, give her a smile, and draw the bow along the strings.
The first notes of “Amazing Grace” make her slide farther down against her pillow. I've played this song so many times for
her, I don't even have to think about finger placement anymore. I focus on her eyes closing. On the peace she's finally getting.
And she is breathing evenly as soon as I hit the fourth verseâ“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall ceaseÂ .Â .Â .”
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I snag her drink from the nightstand and dump the alcohol in the kitchen sink. Then I scan for where I threw my keys when I first bolted in. They lie next to a pile of unopened bills, the same kind of pile we had in Hallend before we had to leave. Foreclosure blows.
Still, by some stroke of luck, just before we were kicked out on the street, Sam's mom, Mrs./Mayor Kearns, called me and Mom and happened to mention that she owned properties in Pineville. I asked her if we could rent one for a while.
“I'll let you stay in one for a discounted rate,” she'd said, “because your mother helped me pass the bar exam.”
We keep drawing on Mom's past lucidity like a well running dry. One day, the favors will dry up, too. And we'll be screwed.
My cell phone rings in my pocket. “Shit!” I fumble for it before it wakes Mom. “Hello?”
“Jack? It's Dad.”
“Hey.” I keep my voice low, in do-not-disturb mode. This convo won't take long. Dad and I used to be close. Before Ryan died. We fished, biked, hung together all the time. Now all we do is go through the same phone routine once or twice a week.
“How's it going?” he asks.
“Perfect.” I feign happy.
“The new house working out for you?”
“It's great. Yep, great,” I say, looking around at how
great it is.
My dad clears his throat. “Jack, don't forget I've got that extra bedroom just waiting for you. I can even get you a job over atâ”
“Dad, things are good here.” I work to sound convincing. I was thirteen when he and Mom split. Mom was still doing her job well and bringing in clients, so despite her drinking, Dad left the choice to stay with Mom up to me. I totally dig that. I don't want him to worry. “Everything's working out,” I tell him.
“Your mom's not drinking too much?”
“Well, like many Americans, she loves her diet soda.”
“Jack, you know what I mean.”
“It's okay, Dad. Seriously. She's been good lately,” I lie. But if Dad knew Mom's problems went way beyond her love for vodka, all kinds of custody hell would break loose. Then I'd have to watch Mom lose everything. “She's got it under control.”
“All right. Do you need anything?” he asks.
I glance over at the bills. My tongue runs against the soothing line of my lip ring. During the divorce, Mom agreed to let Dad send all his child support money toward college for me. So we can't rely on that. Which means I'll have to pick up extra shifts at both my jobs or get Mom healthy enough for a while so she can take on some meaty cases without the chance of her hearing little people in the courtroom walls or accusing the judge of being Satan's cousin.
“It's all good,” I say.
A heavy pause sits between us before he says, “All right. Love you, son.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I release a genuine smile. It's cool he calls and gives a crap if I'm okay.
I pocket my phone, then head back to Mom's bedroom door. I lean my forehead against it, close my eyes, and feel the weight of
tonight pressing down hard. My mom used to be my heroâwhip smart and cunning. It's why I've stayed. Why I defend her and protect her. But now I'm listening through her door to make sure the sleeping pill-vodka combo she's downed has warded off her hallucinations. Things could be better.
And that nagging worry I've had for a while now worms into my head. If Mom can flip from genius to genuine crackpot, what if my urge to do crazy stuff is a sign? A precursor that a drool cup and straitjacket are in my future? Dr. Surrey tells me I only have a 10 percent chance of being schizophrenic because Mom is. But 10 percent doesn't mean no chance. What if I become just like her? I'm here for Mom, but if I lose my mind, there won't be anyone to help me hide it.
Mom's colleagues and everyone in Hallend know she's a drinker. It's on public record. Has been since the day my younger brother, Ryan, fell off the roof of our house and died. Mom was wasted and had no idea where Ryan was. It was declared an “accidental death.” But people in Hallend gossiped that it was Mom's fault. Dad never forgave her. He left her that day.
But what Dad and everyone in Hallend didn't know was that the second Ryan broke his neck, some freaky switch was thrown in Mom's head, electrocuting her sanity. Somehow, though, even with all the whispering and pointing at her, even with Dad breathing down my neck to cut out and let Mom drink herself to death without me, she and I have hidden how nuts she can become. And I'll have to keep it that way so Mom can continue to work and we can pay our bills and stay together.
The heavy thought sends me reaching for my car keys. With Mom resting now, I can head out to get away from it all for a while.
After the game, Seth's car and Juliette's are the only ones left in the school lot. Juliette sits in hers, the engine and headlights on as she waits for me. A hundred feet away, Seth reaches for me in his front seat, curls his fingers around the back of my neck, pulls me to him until his lips are hot and soft against mine. He smells like soap from his locker room shower. His tongue probes. And I think, all wrapped in his arms and heat and wanting, I can't ever lose him. My body falls toward him, loose and uncontrolled as water, my need for him gnawing inside me.
A burst of headlights flashes against us. We yank apart, watch a car cruise past and up to the school's front doors. Simone Channing glides out of the school to meet the ride. With her hand on the car's door handle, she stops, stares our way for a long, awkward moment. My gaze shifts between Simone and Seth staring back at her, my insides wringing tighter until Simone finally gets into the car and it speeds away.
Then Seth reaches for me again. Like Simone didn't just interrupt our make-out session in a weird, huge way. He grips my waist, pulling me onto him. The steering wheel digs into my back. His
hard-on presses into my thigh. We haven't had sex yet. Because of our schedules, inconvenient times or locations. But we're close.
So I shove down the questions I have about Seth and his ex, concentrate on how he feels against me. I close my eyes, float above it all, focus until I find the image of that girl basking in perfection.
“Tessa,” he says, breathless. He trails kisses down my neck, pushes my hoodie and T-shirt to the side, skims his lips along my collarbone.
My head falls back. I picture the silhouettes of a guy and a girl. His silhouette clinging to me. His mouth open as he moans.
do that to him.
The thought gives me the rush I crave, fills me with the confidence and power that only a boy grasping for me in the dark can bring.
“Tessa,” he says again.
I open my eyes, realize he's been staring at me. For how long? I straighten my arched spine. “Yeah?”
“I just want to sayâ” He gives me a shy sideways glance. Shrugs. “I don't know, I guess it's just that this fall might be kind of hard, you know, for us, together, with work and all my practice and game time. Football is a time suck, for sure. But I don't want you to ever think that, you know, just because I can't be with you all the time, it doesn't mean I don't want to be.” His hands cup my face. “Okay?”
He looks at me all probing and intense, like he needs me to get it. Like he really wants to make this work. Like he's trying to show me how he feels and who he
is. But for some reason, I only ever get a quick sense of him. Kind of like a spritz of perfume. How it's super-strong for a minute and then fades. Most of the time, he is warm fingers and heated breath and sweet words. And
as much as he tries to show me more, I can't push past any of that to what's inside, to what makes him
. I just know I need him. At school. In front of my grandma. And especially during moments like this, when he's all wrapped around me.
So I give him a reassuring smile. Say, “Okay.”
His lips caress mine again just as Juliette's car horn honks.
“Shit,” I mutter.
His hands press against my back. “Don't leave. Please. Let me drive you home.”
Panic prickles through me. In the two months we've been dating, he's only picked me up from my house once. I waited for him at the end of my driveway, hated that he saw the dirt stain that is my street. Wouldn't let him come anywhere near my front door.
I want him to imagine my one-story ranch house is small but pleasant. Flowers in vases or ripe fruit in bowls. That my mother is baking cookies, and both she and my stepdad are giving fabulous parental advice inside. But it's so far from that. Stress hangs in the air like nerve gas. My stepdad yells. My mom, in her work coma, is oblivious, and my sister waxes ultra-bitchy. I don't want Seth to see any of it.
Juliette honks again. I slide off Seth's hips and toward the passenger-side door.
“Sorry. Juliette needs to pick something up from my house,” I lie. “I have to go with her. We'll have to continue this later.” I smile all seductive.
Looking disappointed, he grips my hand. “You'll call me tomorrow?”
“Of course,” I say, then climb out into the night, rush to Juliette's car before my boyfriend can see any trace of my guilt for lying to him again.
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Juliette stops her car at the end of my drive in the same spot where she picked me up. She hooks her chin-length dark hair behind her ears. “Tess, let me drive you to the door.”
“I'm good,” I say.
And she nods. She'll argue and debate with me over a million things, but when it comes to my home life, she lets me win every time.
Almost an entire school year into our friendship, when I finally had the nerve to let her come over, we got off the school bus and wandered right into my stepdad. He was home unexpectedly. Drunk. Stumbling. Screamingâfirst, about his shit job, then at me for showing up. Even though I came home at that time every day.
“I'm sorry,” I told Juliette after we'd retreated to my room.
“Why?” she'd said. “You're not the one yelling.”
She's never judged me for my stepdad's drinking. Still, she respects that I hate having her see it.
Now I grab her up in a hug. “Thank you for going to that sucky game with me.”
“No problem at all,” she says, “except for being subjected to waste-case Sam Kearns and that Dalton dude, whoever the hell he was.”
Whoever the hell he was.
“You're the bestiest,” I say, getting out of the car. “Love you.”
Juliette winks, blows me a kiss, and drives away. And I thank the universe for the trillionth time for throwing her my way in seventh grade, for making her open up, lay out all the pieces of her life so I know practically everything about her. It makes it easy to trust her. But makes me feel like a loser for not being as open.
I mean, she knows all the crap with my grandmother, my real
dad, and my stepdad, how painful and overwhelming it all is. That I don't like to talk about my stepdad's drinking just like I don't want her to see it. But she doesn't know how much I actually keep from her. How many boys I've been with. How often I go with them. Juliette has no idea how fast I scramble to kiss a stranger, shed my clothes, let someone fawn all over me.
While she was building confidence in seventh grade by becoming leader of Pineville Middle School's Community Service Club, I was discovering that my confidence somehow appeared if I slipped into a dark supply closet with the seventeen-year-old son of my stepdad's boss. Boys, sex, all of it was powerful, elating. But not the way I was supposed to act. So I never told Juliette. About that time or any of the others. And while her confidence lasted and grew, mine always crashed quickly. Leaving me feeling darker, sadder, and uglier the second each hookup ended.
Juliette would never understand that. And I hope she never finds out. I couldn't handle her looking at me like I'm weak and nasty.
I head past the massive maple tree at the beginning of my yard, glance at the tiny house next door sitting close to the road, the porch light casting a yellow slab of light onto the small stretch of grassy front yard.
The older couple living there moved out last week. Probably got sick of hearing my stepdad yelling, needed more peace and quiet in their old age. So they packed up and got far away from my screwed-up family. Smart people.
Now there's a silver sedan in the drive. Someone new. The lights are out. And I already feel bad. They go to sleep early, but we're their neighbors. A good half-dozen loud rants from my stepdad, three rip-roaring parties in the garage with his friends, and several
weeks of midnight wood chopping, and they'll see the error of their renting ways.
The ax cracks again and again into stumps of wood in the backyard. My stepdad is still awake. Most nights, in the dark between the back of our house and the woods, he cuts the splintery pieces into quarters, the chunks thudding to the ground. It saves us money through the winter. I usually watch him from my bedroom window, the ever-present orange tip of his cigarette gliding from waist- to mouth-height, the steam of his breath in the dim light of his Bic as he lights up.
I know he misses the Rocky Mountains, the hiking and climbing he never does anymore. He was nanoseconds close to a park ranger job, but he got Mom pregnant with Willow, “did the right thing,” and climbed down to suburbia to get married. Now watching him is like watching a giraffe or lion at the zoo. Pacing around, hitting the ends of his man-made habitat. Our yard's too small for him. And he sometimes looks at me and Mom and Willow the way the caged animal looks at the zookeeperâthe kind who eats and buys clothes and exists at its expenseâlike, “Why are you keeping me here?”
As I approach, my stepdad looks up midâax strike. “You're back,” he says flatly. He sets the ax down and reaches for a Coke on the ground nearby, and the tight ball of caution in my gut loosens. He's stopped getting drunk for the evening. “How was your night?” He stifles a belch.
“Good. Pineville won the game.”
He smiles beneath his wiry facial hair. “We used to party hard when our school won. Hell, we used to party hard no matter what. Usually at my house.” He chuckles.
I try to imagine him young. A clean-faced kid adopted as an
infant into a middle-class family. His dad was a smart engineer who wore collared shirts and khaki pants and loved his whiskey and water. His mom was a quiet librarian. They were dead before my stepdad met my mom.
“Didn't your parents freak?” I ask.
“They didn't know about most of the stuff my friends and I did. Once we blew up a toilet at the high school.” He nods like it's as tame as swapping salt for sugar.
“You'd kill me if I did that.”
His dark eyes bore into me. “You'd never do that.” It's part threat, part fact.
“Did you get caught?” I ask.
A single bushy eyebrow lifts. “I never got caught. I handed the explosive off to my buddy. He planted it, then met me at the Denny's on the corner.” He burps again. “The principal found us and sat down for coffee and a Western omelet. He grilled us for a half hour, then figured he wasn't getting anywhere. He didn't want to kick me out of school because my grades were decent even though my attendance wasn't, and he thought my parents were good folks. So he said the eggs were making him gassy and left us there.” He chuckles.
I love him this way. Open and sharing. Like when I was a little girl, and he'd call out for me.
Come here, Tessa, let me show you this millipede/cloud formation/maple sap/squirrel den.
And nature ran through him instead of alcohol. Moments like this, I know exactly how I'd portray him on canvasâa photo with his wide, sober smile, his brown beard made of upside-down trees, roots clinging firm to his chin. His skin, the darkest, richest soil. And his heart, a rising sun, glowing warm and hopeful at his center.
He lights another cigarette, drags deeply, his smile disappearing
behind the fiery orange tip. “The house needs to be spotless when your grandmother gets here tomorrow.”
“I know.” My lungs tighten.
He blows smoke between us. “And if she brings up U of M, tell her you're busting your ass every which way to get an acceptance from them.”
I nod. “I will. And I am.”
He shakes his head, reels the ax back, but holds it steady to say, “Because if you don't get into that fucking school, Spencer's going to rain some hell down on all of us.”
Then he slams the ax down, and the thud vibrates up my legs and into every bone.