Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
“Gladly.” I toss Tony a grateful smile, then haul ass out of his office toward my car. Just before I drive away, I see Tony holding a towel, taking my place next to Hollis on the line. That dude is definitely one of the good guys.
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When I rush into the house, Mom is holding a law manual open in front of her at the kitchen table, her glasses perched on the end of her nose. Her short hair is bed-head wild. Her eyes scan the words. Then she long-hands on a yellow legal pad. Scan. Write. Scan. Write.
I release the breath I've held for what feels like the whole drive home. She's safe. Alive. Doing the work she loves. She must have worked straight through her appointment with Dr. Surrey. Her cell sits next to her, the face of it black, the battery probably dead.
I stare at her for a long, thankful moment because I dig watching her this way. Focused. Professional. Working hard. It's how I want to remember her when she's gone. The thought guts me.
She looks up when I walk all the way into the room. “Jackie.” A faint smile crosses her thin lips. Then she bows her head into her book again. I notice her ever-present cup of vodka and grapefruit juice close to all her paperwork.
“Big case?” I ask.
“As big as I can get,” she says, not looking up. Her client base has dwindled in the past five years. She used to rock as a divorce and family lawyer. When she's lucid, she still does. Women love her hard-ass approach and her intention to financially cripple and crush the balls of the deadbeat, cheating, or abusive husbands who have driven them to end their marriage. And although she still has some of her fire and drive, it's interrupted a lot by what she calls “being lost,” and when she's not “lost,” she's drinking to stop being afraid of being “lost.” Which just makes her even more “lost.”
“Give me the gruesome details,” I say.
She half smiles. “So my client hired me earlier this week. She fired her previous lawyer because she was worried his defense was weak. And the case is a little sticky.”
“Well, she decided she was gay after she filed for divorce.”
“Or she just failed to reveal her sexual orientation before filing,” I say.
Her expression slips to serious. “Stick to the facts, Jackie.”
I let loose a laugh. “Right. Sorry.”
“Soâ” She grabs up her drink and takes a long swig, clears her throat, then continues. “My client's ex-husband wants to take back
custody of their two children because he thinks her sexual orientation is detrimental to the kids' well-being.”
I sit down at the table, drawn in. “Doesn't he know gay people adopt all the time? It's proven they're damn good parents.”
“True. My client's loser husband won't win because his discrimination is enough to make anyone vomit. But”âshe raises a shaky fingerâ“he also won't win because I just subpoenaed four months' worth of video surveillance that shows him walking arm in arm and hand-on-butt with seven different call girls outside Detroit casinos.”
My pride is uncontainable. “Nice play, counselor.”
She breaks into a vengeful smile. “The scumbag thinks he can screw high-priced escorts but that his former wife can't have a monogamous relationship with the owner of a reputable antiques shop. The idiotic bastard.”
And this is why Mom rocks. Why I've stayed with her. Why she's worth it. Because her mind, when it works, is fucking beautiful.
She slaps her hand on the table, strikes me with a scarily mom-like look. “Now, let's talk about
legal standing here in Pineville. George Fogerty's brother came to visit me this morning.”
I cringe inside. “What did he say?”
“He just wanted to welcome us to Pineville.”
I head into the tiny kitchen area so Mom can't see me seething. Fogerty 2 has nothing to bust me, but he sure as hell was checking up on me. I know his brother has told him about Mom, how she's struggled since Ryan died. How she drinks. We're just damn lucky she's having a good morning and Fogerty 2 didn't see her talking to anyone or being paranoid. He could use her mental
state to screw everything up. Take me away from her. Commit her.
“Jackie, any other reason a cop would be stopping by here?” Mom asks. With all her “lost,” I miss hearing her get all reprimanding and concerned. But I also don't want to stress her out any more than she already is. I don't want me letting off some steam for my own mental health to send her into a crazy fit.
“Don't think so,” I say casually, then open the fridge and inspect the empty shelves. A bottle of mustard. One bottle of sour milk. My stomach growls. I grab a bag of stale potato chips off the counter. I come sit back down with her and gnaw on the softened chips.
Mom puts her cold hand on my arm. Her head tremors as she stares at me sternly. “Listen, you're one of the smartest kidsânoâone of the smartest
I know. So whatever you do outside of this house, please be careful.” She takes a deep breath. “Because I may not be around to get you out of trouble if you get into it.”
The haunting fear I see often lately fills her eyes. She knows she's slipping.
My aunts told me she had a short stint in her local hospital when she was about twenty. “A nervous breakdown,” they said. “She just needed rest,” they said. But now I know that was probably the start of her mental collapse. The hospital loosely evaluated her, then released her after less than twenty-four hours. They had heart attacks and broken bones to deal with. Mental health isn't their forte. And all the big mental institutions, like the nearby Clement Valley Centerâwhich I've broken into three times out of curiosityâhave been shut down by the state and defunded. There's not a lot of help for people like Mom. And I think of how long she's probably been struggling. With voices. With hallucinations. With working to figure out what is real and what isn't. She
was damn good at hiding it until Ryan died. But it's had to be total hell for her. Because just watching her feels like hell to me.
Now she squeezes my arm. “Promise you'll be careful, Jackie.”
I kiss her sunken cheek and think about what I'd be like if I played it straight and stayed out of trouble. I imagine all that pressure building up inside me while I worked, took care of her, went to school, paid billsâespecially her insurance bill so we can keep getting her meds. I can see all that stress and worry bubbling and frothing over until, one day, I end up beating down some poor dude in the school hallway because he said something stupid to me. But since I can't afford assault or murder charges against me, I'll have to do my best to play by the rules. Or be better than ever at toying with dudes like Fogerty 2 and Principal Levy so Mom never gets wind of it.
“I'll be careful,” I say, getting up from the table.
“Oh, Jackie, I almost forgot.” She grabs an envelope with the Central Michigan University logo on it and hands it to me. “It's always a good sign when a school sends literature. Are you going to apply here?” The urgency in her voice makes my heart feel like someone's zipping it up in a too-small duffel. We both know there's no freaking way I can afford college. Even with the fund Dad's throwing the support money into. And even if Dad helped out with what he could or I got loans, there's no way I'd leave her.
But I know what she wants to hear. So I tell her, “I'm thinking about it.”
She smiles, genuinely happy. It's too hard to see. I turn and head toward my room.
“You'll get in, Jackie,” she calls. “I'm proud of you.”
“I know,” I say before shutting my bedroom door.
I shove the info packet into my top desk drawer with the slew
of others I'd gotten my hands on before Mom. Then I pull out a packet of pipe tobacco along with my pipeâanother of my favorite flea market finds. I'm not into cigarettes, and cigars reek, but something about smoking a pipe relaxes me.
I head outside and tuck myself into the fold of the woods behind our house. As I start packing my pipe, a storm door slams at the house next to us. I wonder if it's the bearded guyâmy mom's “spy.” The poor dude has no idea Mom's watching him with suspicion from her bedroom window.
I hold the lighter to the packed bowl of the pipe and drag deeply as the tobacco singes. And when I lift my eyes from the lighter's flame, I almost cough up both lungs. The girl from the football game, the incredibly hot one from the bleachers, is walking up the driveway of the house next door.
The wind carries her blond hair behind her, completely exposing the delicate curve of her face. The breeze presses her T-shirt against her phenomenal body. She's petite, for sure, but she's definitely proportioned in all the right ways. Still, even with me not there to annoy her, her full lips are turned down, and her stride is slow, almost heavy. Like she's sad. Or, like at the game, feeling uncomfortable.
Bleacher Girl heads to the mailbox at the end of the property, pulls out the letters inside, and scans through them before stopping and looking around first to the house on her other side, then toward mine. She sniffs at the air.
I realize she smells my pipe tobacco, sweet and spicy. I think about coming out of the woods and walking right up to her. Just freaking her out before I hold her heart-shaped face and put my lips against hers. I have the urge to kiss her until she smiles. Even though I shouldn't give a crap if she smiles or not. I mean, while
I dig her disdain for football, her instant disdain for me I can live without.
A car pulls in behind her. She waves at the driverâthe dark-haired girl who was sitting with her at the game. She gets in the car, and it travels down the rest of the long driveway to the house.
When Bleacher Girl gets out of the car, she's actually smiling. She lets loose a throaty laugh, genuine and real, her head tipping back to let joy spill out. And something inside me twists in a weird way. Because it looks fucking beautiful on her. She really needs to do that more often.
The girls disappear inside the house. And only then do I realize that if this girl, who's somehow just coiled my chest into a freaky, unexplainable knot, lives next door, then the guy my mom is convinced is spying on us must be Bleacher Girl's dad.
It's an hour before Grandma Leighton arrives for our awkward lunch date, and my stepdad is still not home. He said he was going to put in his usual couple hours of Saturday morning overtime, but he's probably doing everything he can to avoid today. My mom is frantically dusting every surface in our house. I've scrubbed the toilets, the sinks and tubs, washed the floors. And even started in on my homework so, like my stepdad wanted, I can look my grandmother in the eye and tell her what a motivated, diligent, exceptional student I am.
Since I figured my stepdad wouldn't dare get absurdly drunk in front of Grandma Leighton and embarrass us all, I asked Juliette to have lunch with us before her weekend debate club practice. With her exceptional people skills, she's always good at smoothing those awkward moments. And I'm expecting the whole thing to be one awkward moment. Grandma Leighton likes Juliette a lot, and when she called to confirm her visit last night, she asked Mom how that “upstanding young lady, Juliette,” is doing. Mom also thought “it would be wise” to have Juliette here when my grandmother arrived. Like a distracting prop. Or a shield.
In my room, Juliette slumps on my bed while I sit at my desk. “How often do these stressful lunches with your grandma happen?” she asks.
“Like once a month. But she tries to see me more often now that I've become her pet project. You know, like
. Turn Tessa from an ugly, awkward, lame girl to a sleek, dazzling, and dominant corporate leader.” I wince.
“I'm sorry, Tess.” Juliette walks over, gives me a consoling hug. “I wish I could make it better for you,
. Unfortunately, I don't have much pull in the corporate world.
help you ace your latest math assignment. Where's your calculator?”
She opens a desk drawer to look. But instead, she pulls out the Kendall College of Art and Design app I'd printed in a moment of weakness this summer, when I had a sweet thought that my grandmother might miraculously change her mind or fall off the face of the earth. I'd even filled it in. But then I'd shoved it into the drawer. It's a pointless document now.
Juliette looks at the app covered in my handwriting, my signature at the bottom. She gives me a sympathetic look. I just shrug.
“Don't throw this out,” she says, putting it back in the drawer, careful to lay it in neatly. She finds my calculator and takes a seat on my bed. “Seriously, Tess. You never know how this whole year is going to play out.”
I don't answer. Just sigh, then open my math book. I've drawn dancing figures and swirling flowers in the white spaces between the numbers, overlapping some of the crisp, straight integers until they blur into art.
Juliette lies back against my aqua comforter, her dark hair fanning around her. “So I was thinking it's a damn shame Sam Kearns
is such a lazy ass. It pisses me off, because he's super-cute. And really smart.”
I ignore the first math problem, draw a flower along the side of my book's page. “You could always mold Sam into what you want. You know, kind of like you do with freshmen student council members. Or cookie dough.”
Juliette laughs. “Sam might just be unmoldable. Especially now that he's hanging with that crazy Jack dude.”
I start to picture Jack, but my phone chimes with a text from Seth.
“Hot quarterback?” Juliette asks.
I nod, then read his message.
Hey, pretty girl. Sorry this weekend is all about football. Homecoming soon. Principal Levy wants some of the team to eat lunch with him on Monday to talk it over. Wanna join us?
I smile. Mom will be thrilled I have an in with Levy.
“So how's it going with him?” Juliette asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he's cute and all,” she says, “but are you really into him?”
I concentrate on what to type. Decide on,
Sounds great :)
“Earth to Tessa?” Juliette says.
I look up. “Of course I like him,” I say too defensively.
She holds up her open palm. “Okay. Okay. Down, girl. I just know you, Tess. You're never, like, bubbly with emotion or whatever, but you don't ever gush about this football dude.”
I focus back on my math book, think of how I
like Seth. I like how he looks at me. I love how he holds me. We just don't talk about a lot. But we're both really busy. “We've only been dating a couple months, and we're still getting to know each
other,” I tell Juliette. “We're not getting married tomorrow or anything.”
“Fair enough,” she says. “Has he explained yet why he and Simone broke up?”
I shake my head.
“Just ask him,” she says. But it's not that simple. I don't want to pry or push. Because if I expect him to open up and tell me about his past girlfriends, then he might expect me to talk about the guys I've been with. And I don't want to go there.
“It's not my business,” I say.
She sits up fast. “Well, I seriously disagree. Simone Channing is always looking at you like she wants you to die a slow and torturous death. That makes it your business.”
I shrug. “Maybe. But he'll tell me when he's ready.”
“Whatever. I think you give the males of our species too much credit, Tess. But I guess,” she continues, “if it doesn't work out, you can always hook up with Jack âSinister' Dalton.”
She laughs as I look at her like she's crazy. But my traitorous mind imagines Jackâwhat it would feel like to kiss him with that silver ring in his lower lip.
Until Juliette says, “Let's do this math thing so we can make your grandma proud.” Then all I can think is how Grandma Leighton would be so less-than-proud if she ever saw me with pierced, tattooed, trouble-making Jack.
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Juliette drags me through my math homework, and just as we dig into the suckishness that is biology, Willow slams the front door.
Willow was colicky as a baby and tantrum-prone as a toddler, and now that she's thirteen, her attitude is as grating as crushed glass. In two seconds, she's at my bedroom door. Pounding.
“Can I help you?” I open up to face her jutting hip, her perfectly curled hair secured in a neon-pink headband. Her lips puff and pout in the same color pink.
“Did you finish your chores?” she asks.
“My day was lovely, Willow. Thanks for asking,” I say.
She glares. “I did mine last night.”
I clap for her.
“Whatever.” Her brown eyes roll behind overly mascaraed lashes.
Willow and I look nothing alike. She's taller, lithe. A body like a beach volleyball player with long dark brown hair. My mom swears she looks central European, but with my stepdad being adopted and not knowing a thing about his biological parents, my sister's heritage is a mystery. Her attitude, however, is bluntly obvious.
“Listen close, Tessa. Mom said she might be able to drop Serena and me at the movie theater later. So don't talk, like, forever about your college plans so that lunch takes forever. You'll screw my afternoon.”
I try not to give in to my agitation and slap her.
From behind Willow, Serena, my sister's oldest friend from down the street, stands, shifting on her feet, her hands clasped in front of her.
“Hey, Serena,” I say. “Staying for lunch?”
“She is,” Willow answers for her. Serena smiles, twirling the ends of her light brown hair around her finger.
“Lovely,” I say. “The featured dish today is made with a dash of awkwardness and a cup of desperation.”
Serena looks confused.
“Shut it, Tessa. And you should change.” Willow points at my
jeans. “I heard your grandma say once that she thinks jeans are for hobos and poorly paid actors.”
I point at her black leggings emerging from a light orange tank top and sheer blouse. “But the upper class, I'm sure, covets spandex.”
“Whatever. Your grandma totally loves me.” Willow grabs the doorknob and almost catches my hand as she shuts the door.
“Ah, your sister is a delicate flower,” Juliette says.
“Covered in poison,” I retort.
The front door opens and slams again. My stepdad sends forth a stream of curses most rappers would find impressive. My lungs constrict. I know in an instant he's drunk. He's overly agitated. Beyond angry and into furious. He stomps down the hallway, past my bedroom door, straight to the shower to clean up as well as he can.
I crack my bedroom door as he slams his. A trail of dried mud lies on our freshly cleaned floor. When I turn back around, Juliette's watching me.
“Listen, Tess. In a couple of hours, this whole thing will be over, and you'll all be a lot less stressed out.”
But with her mild-mannered parents who laugh with her, listen to her, and support her dreams and goals, Juliette can't completely understand how this is never over. Even if my grandma were out of the picture altogether, my stepdad would still get drunk. Still be exhausted and bitter. He would still drag mud through all our lives.
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Spencer Diane Leighton sits steel-beam straight, holds her fork like she learned in boarding school, and eats very slowly so as not to digest more than her five-foot-two-inch frame requires. Her crÃ¨me-colored hair has been professionally coifed in high curls as close as
women get to Marie Antoinette in the twenty-first century. Her giant emerald-and-gold earrings match her giant emerald-and-gold bracelets, which complement her tailored salmon-colored “luncheon outfit.”
The plate in front of my grandmother is cracked along the edge.
The fresh lettuce from the farmers' market is not washed as well as it could be.
She found a hair in her soup.
My mom is puke-pale.
My stepdad is holding his bottle of beer like a life preserver.
Willow is staring at Grandma Leighton like she's Mother Teresa reincarnated, no doubt hoping for one of her handouts.
Serena's folded in on herself so much, she's become human origami.
Luckily, Juliette has struck up a lively conversation with good old Spence about her family's trip to Japan last summer and the exceptional amenities in Japanese hotels.
“Juliette, darling, do you have a boyfriend?” Grandma Leighton asks.
I try not to wince. Talk of men with my grandmother is always dicey. Her stance is very clear. Her three brothers abandoned the family business and left only her to tend it. Her sonâmy biological fatherâdoesn't care to be a part of the business. He takes and never gives, living now with his plastic wife and two shiny new kids in a house and life she's paid for. And despite my stepdad raising me because her son didn't even try, when she looks at him, with his perma-scowl and his dirty skin constantly sweating out alcohol, I'm sure she thinks what she's said to me so many times. “Women can take care of things better than men.” And she lifts
her chin high, the way the female CEO and chairman of the board of Leighton Custom Homes is supposed to.
“No, Ms. Leighton.” Juliette buries her disappointment. “No boyfriend right now.”
“Well, dear, I can tell you that whichever young man catches your eye, he will be irrefutably lucky.”
“Thank you,” she says, nodding.
“And, Tessa, are you still dating that very handsome young man I met over the summer?” She waits for me to tell her what she wants to hear.
“I am,” I say.
“Very good.” She sucks in a breath. “He's definitely the kind of boy you want with you.”
“Why?” Juliette asks, genuinely curious.
She holds Juliette's stare. “I've always said that a strong woman chooses to have a man by her side who looks good and behaves even better.”
Grandma Leighton's glance bounces from my half-drunk stepdad to my mom. Mom looks as if she's been gutted. I try not to choke on my egg bake.
“And let's talk about school,” my grandmother says.
I choke on my egg bake.
As soon as I stop coughing, Grandma Leighton asks, “How are
doing, Willow?” She releases a smile, her rosy lipstick super-bright against her bleached teeth.
“School's easy,” Willow says, raising one eyebrow, all haughty. And it is for Will. She was unfairly born with intellect, athleticism, and charisma. “It's just that,” Will continues, “with this new school year, all the trends have changed, so I'm going to have to get some new clothes.”
Mom gives her a WTF brow-crunch.
“I've said this before,” Grandma Leighton says to Willow and me, “but I would be happy to take both you girls shopping.”
“Their clothes are fine,” my stepdad barks. “They don't need you to take them shopping.”
My sister's lower lip protrudes in a pout.
Grandma Leighton raises an eyebrow. “Well, that's fine, then. But, Willow, I did bring you a little something.”
Willow perks right up. “Thank you, Ms. Leighton,” she gushes.
“You're welcome.” She nods. “And, Tessa, dear, if you change your mind about me getting you a little something every now and then, I'd love to bring you an outfit.”
“I'm good.” I give a curt nod. “I like the clothes I have.”
“Okay.” My grandmother gives a quick glance at my plain blue T-shirt. Then, with a couple of mini-swivels of her petite shoulders to confirm she's sitting as straight as possible, she regroups. “So have you applied to the University of Michigan yet, Tessa?”
My stepdad gives me a glassy warning stare.
“I'm working on it.” I press my sweaty palms together. “I'm still gathering everything I need to submit.”
“It's a long process,” Juliette pipes up.
My grandmother's smile disappears. “Well, don't wait too long. The University of Michigan is an exceptional school, and no one should pay for anything less. My family has donated a lot of money to that university, and despite opting to not use the fine education they were given as a gift, my three brothers went there. My two sons attended. I was even accepted just out of high school, but I was a woman.” She sniffs, indignant. “And even in the midst of the feminist movement, my fatherÂ .Â .Â .” She weirdly falters. “Well, he believed education would be wasted on me. Little did he realize
that while my brothers were drinking martinis before noon, focusing on their own fun and ignoring everything else, I would be the one to step up and save the family business.”