Later, I would look back and wonder what I was doing the exact moment Kelli died.
When I left the house for work that morning, nothing was different. There was no sense of impending doom, no ominous soundtrack playing in the back of my mind warning me that my world was about to change. There was only Victor asleep in our bed, and me, as usual, trying my best not to wake him as I kissed him good-bye.
It was a Friday in late October, and I drove my usual route downtown, taking in the dark silhouette of the Seattle skyline etched against a coral sky. “Good morning,” I said to my assistant, Tanya, after I’d parked and entered the building. She was a stunning woman with skin the color of the deepest, richest cocoa who favored brightly hued dresses to show off her abundant curves. “A pre–Weight Watchers Jennifer Hudson,” I told my best friend, Melody, describing Tanya to her after I initially interviewed her for the job.
“Morning,” she said, so focused on whatever she was doing that she barely looked up from her computer screen. Her long red nails clackety-clacked on her keyboard. Six months ago, Tanya had been living with her two toddlers in one of our safe houses. At the time, she desperately needed to work and I desperately needed an assistant, so we seemed like a perfect match. I’d taken over as CEO of Second Chances the previous fall, honored to take the lead in an organization that began in the early nineties as a simple twenty-four-hour support line for battered women and had slowly grown into a multifaceted program including crisis response, counseling, temporary housing, and job placement assistance. We’d even opened a thrift shop earlier that year, where our clients had first pick of donated clothes for job interviews and later, when they were ready to go out on their own, entire wardrobes. My job was to make sure that the more practical, administrative aspects of the program, like funding and staffing, ran smoothly, but the real reason I’d accepted the job was for the privilege of helping women like Tanya rebuild their shattered lives.
I set down the latte I’d bought for her at the café downstairs so it would be within her reach, then turned and walked into my office, closing the door behind me. I assumed this would be like any other day. I positioned myself at my desk, booted up my computer, and reviewed my calendar. Other than a couple of phone calls, there was only a staff meeting at two o’clock, so I got busy studying the client files Tanya had pulled for me. It was time to decide if these women were ready to make the transition from our safe houses into a place of their own. Leaving the first home where they’d felt protected was often the hardest step for victims of domestic violence; I made sure we held their hand every step of the way.
I barely looked up from my papers until a few hours later, when my cell phone vibrated in my purse. I reached for it with a skipping, happy feeling in my belly at the sight of Victor’s name on the screen. “Hi, honey,” I said, glancing down at the ring on my finger. He’d only proposed five days ago and I was still unused to the weight of it, still a little stunned that he’d asked me to marry him at all.
“Can you go pick up the kids from school for me?” Victor asked. His voice was strained and carried an urgency I didn’t recognize.
“What, I’m your fiancée now, so I don’t even get a hello?” I said, hoping I could tease him out of his seemingly ugly mood. Victor was usually the most easygoing person I knew; I wondered if something had gone wrong at work, if his head chef had called in sick or one of his busers dropped a box of wineglasses. “Is this what it’s going to be like being married to you?”
“Grace,” he said. “Seriously. I need you to pick them up and take them back to the house. Please.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, sitting up straight in my chair. Every muscle in my body suddenly tensed, realizing this wasn’t just a case of Victor’s having a bad day.
“It’s Kelli. Her friend Diane found her a couple of hours ago. She wasn’t breathing and . . .” I heard him swallow once, hard. “She’s dead, Grace. Kelli’s dead.”
My mouth went dry. Kelli. His ex-wife. Oh, holy shit. All the air pressed out of my lungs; it took a moment for me to be able to speak. “Oh my god, Victor. What happened?”
“I don’t know the details yet. The medics took her to the ER and I guess I’m still listed as her emergency contact on her insurance plan, so they called me. Can you pick up the kids?”
“Of course.” I stood up, scrambling for my purse. Panic jittered in my chest, picturing their response to this news. Ava, especially, at thirteen, needing her mother so much, and Max, who was only seven and still had to talk with Kelli before he could fall asleep the nights he stayed at our house. Max and Ava, who didn’t yet know that we were engaged. Victor had told Kelli the news earlier in the week, meeting her for a cup of coffee at the restaurant while the kids were still in school. “How’d it go?” I asked when he came home. He pressed his lips together and gave his head a brief shake. “Not great,” he said, and I hadn’t pressed him further.
“What do you want me to tell them?” I asked him now, already worried that whatever I said would be wrong.
“Nothing, yet. I’ll be home as soon as I can, but I have to go to identify her—” His voice broke, and he cleared it. “Her body.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” I’d never heard him so upset and felt desperate to do something to comfort him.
“No, just get the kids. Please. I’ll figure out what to say to them before I get there.”
We hung up, and I hurried outside my office. Tanya turned her gaze from her computer to me. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Kelli . . . Victor’s ex.” I exhaled a heavy breath. “She’s dead.”
Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my god!” she said with her eyes open wide. She dropped her hand back to her lap. “What happened?”
“We don’t know yet. Victor is on his way to the hospital right now.”
“Oh my god,” she said again, shaking her head. “I’ll wipe your calendar for next week. The staff meeting can wait.” She paused. “Do you want me to call Stephanie?”
I nodded, thinking that the best person to cover for me was definitely my predecessor, who’d retired when I accepted the job but still gave her time to us as a volunteer. “That’d be great. I’m not sure how long I’ll be out. Thank you.”
“Of course. I’ll call if there’s anything urgent. And let me know if you need anything else.”
I left the building with my muscles shaking, climbed into my car, and gripped the steering wheel, trying to steady myself before pulling out of the lot. Thoughts spun in my head; I tried to imagine what life would be like for Max and Ava after they found out their mother was dead. And for me as the woman who, by default, would wind up standing in her place.
* * *
The night I met Victor, the idea that I might become the mother to his children was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, being a mother was pretty much the furthest thing from my mind any night of the week, something I tried to explain to my date as we sat in the bar of Victor’s popular Seattle restaurant, the Loft. At that moment, I didn’t know I was about to meet Victor. I didn’t know that he owned the restaurant or that he was divorced with two kids. All I knew was I needed to find a way to bail on this date before it got any worse. Chad was the college frat boy who’d never grown up, something I hadn’t realized when we’d messaged back and forth on Match.com and then briefly chatted on the phone. On paper, he was jocular, sort of funny, and had that confident, teetering-on-the-edge-of-cocky demeanor I typically found appealing in a man, so I figured there wouldn’t be much harm in meeting him for a simple drink. Clearly, I had figured wrong.
“So,” he said after we’d been seated, ordered our drinks, and gone over the usual niceties of how happy we were to finally meet in person. “You don’t want kids?” He leaned back in his chair with an odd smirk on his ruddy face.
I was immediately turned off by the blunt challenge in his tone; every internal red flag I had started waving. My online profile did, in fact, indicate that I was focused on pursuing my career more than motherhood, but it was strange that he would lead with this particular topic. I took a tiny sip of the lemon-drop martini our server had just delivered, letting the crunchy bits of sanding sugar that lined the rim of my glass dissolve on my tongue before answering. “It’s not so much that I don’t want them,” I said. “More like I’m not sure I’d be very good as a parent.” I hoped my neutral response would dissuade him from pursuing the subject further.
“Don’t you like kids?” he asked, tilting his blond head at me.
“Yes, I like them,” I said, repressing a sigh. It was frustrating how many people seemed to assume that I was heartless or unfeeling because I wasn’t rushing to become a mother. Men who chose a career over fatherhood weren’t automatically considered assholes. They were classified as devil-may-care George Clooney types. And who didn’t love George?
“I have a brother who was born when I was thirteen,” I explained to Chad. “And I spent ten years helping to raise him before I finally moved out of my parents’ house, so I sort of learned firsthand that motherhood really isn’t for me.” My decision wasn’t quite as simplistic as I’d made it sound, but I was already scanning the room for my quickest escape, so I didn’t see the sense in delving deeper than that with Chad. The Loft’s bar wasn’t huge, maybe a total of fifteen tables. The only exit was past the hostess, right in his line of sight. If I excused myself to the restroom, then tried to sneak out the front door, he’d see. I took a big swallow of my drink, hoping the alcohol would smooth the edges of my growing irritation.
“Well,” Chad said as he placed his meaty palms flat on our small, wooden table, “I actually believe it’s a woman’s biological responsibility to reproduce. I mean, honestly, if you think about it anthropologically, your body is really just a support system for your uterus.”
My wrist flicked and the contents of my drink splashed in his face before my mind registered it had given the command. Chad sputtered and wiped at his eyes with the backs of his hands as I set the now-empty glass on the table and quickly began gathering my things.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he said, spitting out the words.
I stood, pulse pounding, holding my black leather clutch up off the table so it wouldn’t get vodka on it. “Nothing,” I said, attempting to take a slow, measured breath. “You, however, might benefit from therapy.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall man with closely cropped, dark brown hair striding toward us from behind the bar. He wore a black dress shirt and slacks, both cut to complement his lanky build.
Chad stood too, and took a menacing step toward me just as the man in black grabbed him by the arm. “Looks like you spilled your drink,” he said. I immediately liked him for his attempt at diplomacy, despite my certainty that he had witnessed what actually happened. He appeared to be around my age, midthirties, maybe a little bit older. The threads of silver woven through the hair around his temples gave him a distinguished edge and his olive-toned skin held the slightly weathered look of a little too much time spent in the sun.
“That bitch threw it in my face!” Chad yelled. Every person who hadn’t been looking in our direction suddenly was. The buzz of conversation ceased, and the only sounds were the low, bass-driven background music piped in through the speakers and Chad’s hoarse, angry breathing.
The man’s grip tightened on Chad’s arm. “Sir, I have to ask you to refrain from calling this lovely woman names. I’m sure it was an accident.” He looked at me with kind, smoky gray eyes. “Right, miss?”
I shook my head. “Nope. I threw it at him. He was being an ass. Are you the manager?”
The man shook his head a little, too, and smiled, revealing white, straight teeth and a cavernous dimple in his left cheek. “The owner, actually. Victor Hansen.” He released his grip on Chad and held out his hand.
I clasped it quickly but firmly, my greet-the-executive, don’t-mess-with-me handshake. “Grace McAllister. Good to meet you. I love this place.”
“Jesus!” Chad interjected. His face flamed red and bits of saliva shot out from his mouth. “If you two are done with your little schmooze-fest, I’d like to know who’s going to pay for my shirt!”
Victor glanced over at Chad’s late-1990s holdover mustard-yellow rayon button-down, reached into his pocket, and offered him a twenty. “This should cover it. Now, why don’t you show some dignity and walk away?”
Chad looked at the bill in Victor’s hand but didn’t take it, then made a disgusted noise before grabbing his coat off the back of his chair and pushing his way through the bar to the front door, knocking into a few chairs and tables as he went. Outside, he threw a middle finger up in the air behind him as he walked by the window where Victor and I stood.
“Wow,” Victor said, tucking his money back in his pocket, “I wonder if his mom knows he escaped her basement?”
I laughed. “Thank you,” I said, reaching into my purse for my credit card. I held it out to him. “I’m happy to pay for our drinks.” The other customers stopped looking at us and returned to their own conversations; the comforting background noise of glasses and silverware tinkling filled the air.
“Oh no,” Victor said, waving my card away. “Those are on me.” He smiled again. “Did you order dinner?”
“No, thank god. Just a drinks date.” I shook my head. “Evidently, I need to work on my screening process.” Maybe I should start asking for men’s relationship résumés and require at least three glowing references before agreeing to meet.
Victor chuckled. “Tough out there, isn’t it?”
My eyes stole a glance down at his left hand. No ring. Hmm. He caught me midglance and lifted his hand up, wiggling his bare fourth finger. “Some detective I’d make, huh?” I laughed again, then reached up to smooth my russet waves.
Luckily, he laughed, too. “So, I’m thinking the least I can do is feed you so the night’s not a total loss. Will you join me for dinner?”
My cheeks flushed, and I dropped my gaze to the floor before looking back up at him and smiling. “I’d like that,” I said, “but will you excuse me a moment? I need to visit the ladies’ room.”
“Of course.” He pointed me in the right direction, and I walked away slowly, conscious of his eyes on me, making sure not to sway my hips in too obvious a manner, but enough so that he’d notice the movement. In the restroom, I stood in front of the full-length mirror and swiped on a touch of tinted lip gloss. I took a step back and examined my reflection. Reddish, shoulder-length hair, mussed in that casual, I-meant-it-to-look-a-little-messy way that had taken me over an hour to achieve. Pale skin, a spattering of freckles on my cheeks that no amount of powder could hide; green eyes, set evenly apart. A swash of mascara was the only makeup I wore besides the lip gloss. My lips were full enough, and the gloss definitely helped. Being that this was the first date night I’d had in several months, I’d taken the time to go shopping and pick out a flattering pair of dark, boot-cut jeans and a slightly clingy green sweater, both of which made the most of my somewhat average figure. My legs looked leaner, and with the help of a good bra, my chest looked perkier than usual. Overall, not too shabby. I pinched my cheeks for a little color and returned to the bar, where I found Victor exactly where I’d left him.
“All set?” he asked, and I nodded, following him through swinging black doors into the kitchen. As we entered, I hesitated. “Um, do you want me to put my order in myself?”
Victor laughed again, took my hand, and led me over to a high-backed, cushioned red booth off to the side of where the servers were gathered. “No, I want you to have the best seat in the house—the chef’s table.” He gestured for me to sit down. “I’ll be right back. What were you drinking? Lemon Drop?”
I smiled. “How did you know?”
“Smelled it on your date.” He winked, then strode over past the stainless steel counter behind which several cooks were either sautéing, whisking, or artfully arranging wonderful-smelling food on square white plates. The energy in the room was kinetic but slowed down as Victor spoke to one of the male chefs, a hugely muscled and handsome man with startling black tribal tattoos on his thick neck and forearms. He looked over at me as Victor talked, then he smiled and gave me a clipped salute in greeting. I gave a short wave back, briefly wondering how many other female patrons Victor had given this treatment.
Victor headed out of the kitchen—to get our drinks, presumably—so I quickly texted Melody, my best friend. “Weird night. On date number two (I think), same restaurant.” She texted back immediately: “WTH? I can’t even get one date!” I smiled to myself, picturing her curled up in her favorite plaid flannel pajamas, eating popcorn, and watching reruns of Sex and the City. “Will explain tomorrow,” I typed, pressing send just as Victor returned with two martinis. Dirty for him, lemon for me.
“So,” he said, “I hope you don’t mind I ordered food for us both. I know the menu pretty well.”
“How do you know what I like?” I asked, taking what I hoped was a dainty sip from my drink.
“Well, I know you don’t like stupid men, so I’m already ahead of the game.” He smiled. “I’m having an assortment of dishes brought out, actually, so you can sample a little of everything.”
“Impressive. Must be nice to be the owner.”
He grinned. “It is. So, what do you do?”
I launched into a short description of my career, how after I got my degree in business management, I’d stumbled into a position as a lowly HR assistant and worked my way up through various companies to an eventual directorship for a local medical center. It was there I learned about Second Chances. I told him how I’d been a volunteer with the organization long before I was one of its employees.
“What made you want to give your time there, in particular?” Victor asked, tilting his head a bit toward his shoulder.
“Well,” I said, “that’s kind of a long story.”
“The good ones usually are.”
“All right then, you asked for it,” I said with a smile. “So, I was in seventh grade when I saw a news segment about this amazing female doctor who traveled the world helping people who’d been affected by all sorts of atrocities—disease, war, famine. Horrible stuff. And I remember being in awe watching her cradle this extremely ill-looking woman, who just clung to her like she hadn’t been held so tenderly in her entire life.” Tears swelled my throat even then, as I recalled the power of that moment. “I guess that image sort of stuck with me. I sort of promised myself to someday be like that doctor . . . helping those who couldn’t help themselves.”
Victor nodded and seemed interested, so I continued, careful not to hop up on my soapbox about the political issues surrounding domestic violence, as I sometimes had the tendency to do when I started talking about my job. “When I heard about the work Second Chances did, it seemed like such a perfect way to fulfill that desire. I mean, HR was great for me professionally, but this was an opportunity to help people on a much more personal level, you know?” He nodded again, and I went on, wrapping the details up as quickly as I could. “I enrolled in crisis counselor training to get qualified to take calls on the help line and started using my business contacts to increase fund-raising donations, and discovered I had a real passion for the work. When the woman who started the organization told me she was retiring, I applied for the position and got it. Most of my management experience is in operations and organizational development, so it’s kind of a perfect fit.”
“I think it’s great that you’re so passionate about what you do,” Victor said, lifting his glass and tilting his head, indicating that I should do the same. “Congrats.”
I complied, and we clinked our glasses together lightly. “Thank you.”
He took a sip of his drink, then set it back on the table before giving me another smile. “So, I have to ask. What did that guy say to get you so mad?” I gave him a quick recap of Chad’s statements about the role of women in relation to procreating and Victor’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me?”
I shrugged. “I guess he didn’t believe me when I told him I’ve chosen not to have kids.”
“Me too,” Victor said. “At least, not any more than I already have.”
I cocked a single eyebrow and apparently looked as confused as I felt, so he pulled out his wallet to show me a picture of two dark-haired, blue-eyed children—a girl and a boy. “Max is six and Ava is twelve,” he said. “They live with their mom, but I see them every other weekend.” His voice was tinged with a tiny bit of sadness, and I automatically wondered what kind of relationship he had with his ex-wife. In the past, if I were mentally reviewing a man’s relationship résumé and it included the word “father” among his experience, I would have moved it to the “no” pile. But it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to find a single man who hadn’t already been married or didn’t have children, so I attempted to keep an open mind. Just because I wasn’t set on having babies didn’t mean I wasn’t looking to fall in love.
“How long have you been divorced?” I asked, keeping the inquiry light. How recently he came back on the dating market played a big part in my decision about whether or not he was relationship material. I wasn’t anxious to be any man’s rebound girl.
“A little over two years,” Victor said. “We get along fairly well, which is great for the kids.”
“Ah,” I said, leaning back against the seat cushion. “They’re adorable.” I realized he was the first person in as long as I could remember who hadn’t immediately asked why I wasn’t anxious to have children as soon as they found this out about me. Another point in his favor.
“They’re also enough,” he said. “I’m thirty-nine, and I don’t plan to have any more.” He looked at me, his expression hesitant. “So, does my daddy status mean this is our last date?”
“Date?” I fiddled with the hem of my sweater and issued what I hoped was an appealing smile. “This isn’t just the owner of the restaurant making up for a customer’s crappy night?”
“I don’t think so.” He gaze became more determined as he reached over and skimmed the top of my hand with his fingertips. “I’d like to see you again.”
His touch sent a shiver through me, and staring into his kind eyes, I felt a twinge somewhere in the vicinity of my belly. Do I do this? I hadn’t dated a man with children before, but something about Victor felt different. Special enough to think he might just be worth taking a chance.
Heart Like Mine
After Dad moved out, Saturday mornings were the hardest. Saturdays used to be when he didn’t have to get up early and head to the restaurant; Saturdays were when he woke us with the buttery smell of his special homemade vanilla-bean waffles toasting on the griddle and smoky bacon sizzling on the stove. I loved to lie in my bed, breathing in the tendrils of those familiar scents, feeling them wrap around me, warm and comforting as my father’s arms.
“Breakfast, kiddos!” he bellowed when it was ready. “Come and get it while it’s hot!”
Max would scamper down the hallway to beat me to the table, but I stayed in bed with a small, secret smile on my face, knowing exactly what was coming next. My bedroom door was flung open, and Daddy would stomp over to me. “Is there a sleepy little girl in here?” he asked in a teasing, slightly maniacal voice. “Does she need to be tickled to wake up?”
“No!” I’d squeal, my smile growing wider, scrunching myself up against the wall, pretending to try to get away from him.
“Oh, yes!” Dad said, holding his hands out in front of him and wiggling his fingers like crazy.
“Daddy, no!” I said again, but inside I was thinking, Oh, yes!
“It’s time to get uh-up!” he said, and then it would come, the dive-bomb of his fingertips to my sides, and I couldn’t help but shriek, giggling and laughing and writhing around beneath his touch. “Are you awake yet?” he asked, rubbing the short stubble of his beard against my neck to tickle me more. “Are you ready to come have breakfast?”
“Yes!” I yelled, smiling so wide it almost hurt my cheeks. “Okay! I’m coming!”
Dad kissed my cheek and pulled his hands away from my body. “All right then,” he said. “Let’s eat!”
Now that he was gone, now that Mama had asked him to leave, Saturday mornings were quiet, empty of any happy laughter. For breakfast we had cereal or toast, and most of the time, I ended up going into Mama’s room to wake her up so we wouldn’t be late for Max’s soccer games. Just last week, she had forgotten that we were in charge of bringing the snack, and instead of just stopping at the store to buy something like any of the other moms probably would have, she’d rushed to bake a batch of cupcakes before we could leave.
“Yoo-hoo!” she had singsonged as we finally made our way to the field where Max’s game was about to get under way. “Sorry we’re late!”
He’d missed warm-up, but as I carefully balanced the carrying case filled with the chocolate cupcakes, Max raced past us to get to where his coach was picking the starting lineup. The mothers of Max’s teammates barely turned to acknowledge Mama’s greeting. They sat together on the bleachers with heavy plaid blankets over their laps, chattering and laughing at something one of them had said. A group of men stood nearby, laughing and shaking each other’s hands; a few of them shouted encouragement to Max and his teammates. Daddy used to stand with those men, talking and laughing, before he moved out. Now he only came to Max’s games on the Saturdays we were with him.
I set the carrying case on the table next to the cooler full of water bottles and watched as Mama tried again. She fluffed her hair and put on her best, brightest smile. “Hey there,” she said as she walked over to stand next to the group. “Beautiful weather for a game, isn’t it?” It was a cold, crisp fall day.
A heavyset woman with black, straight hair turned her head and gave Mama a false smile in return. “Yes,” she said, as though stating something incredibly obvious. “It is.”
“How’s the other team looking this morning?” Mama asked, shoving her hands into the side pockets of her fitted black leather jacket. The other moms wore Columbia fleece pullovers or earthy-toned wool sweaters. Mama chose tight Levi’s and over-the-knee black boots to match her jacket; the other women had on rain boots or closed-toed Birkenstocks. “Our babies are going to show ’em who’s boss, right?”
No one answered her. Instead, a few of them covered their mouths and stifled coughs. Mama’s chin trembled just the tiniest bit before she sat down on the bottom bleacher and tucked her tiny hands between her legs. I joined her, and she put her arm around me, hugging me to her. I wanted to tell her not to worry—that she was prettier than all those other women. Nicer, too. But I didn’t know if I should. If it was good for her to know that I could see the sadness in her eyes when she looked at them—the longing to be made a part of their group. Mama and I were alike that way. She had Diane and I had my best friend, Bree, but that was pretty much it. She looked at those women like I looked at the popular girls at school. Like, Please, just give me a chance.
One of the fathers noticed Mama sitting on the edge of the bleachers. He was tall and barrel chested, with sandy blond hair and a goatee. He made a comment under his breath to the other men, and a few of them snickered in response. He walked over to us, propped his foot up on the edge of the bleacher right next to Mama’s leg, and leaned on his thigh with his forearm. “Hey, Kelli,” he said. “How are you?” His words were slick, as though coated in oil as they slid from his mouth.
Mama gave him a sparkling smile. “Well, I’m just fine, thank you very much.” Her voice was bubbly, practically dripping with enthusiasm. “How are you?”
“Better now,” he said with a wink, and my stomach clenched. I was pretty sure he was Carter’s dad, and the husband of the black-haired, heavy woman, who I only knew as “Carter’s mom.” I didn’t like the way he was looking at Mama. I didn’t like how hairy his knuckles were, either.
“Honey,” Carter’s mom called out, noticing her husband talking to us. “Are you watching the game?”
“Carter’s not even on the field yet,” he said sharply, giving her a hard look. Then he turned his gaze back to Mama, softening it. “I feel like I haven’t seen you around much. I was sorry to hear about you and Victor. You two always seemed so happy.”
Mama kept her smile bright, but I saw the flash of grief in her eyes. Even after all of this time, she still seemed to miss him. A few weeks ago, she had accidentally set a place for him at the dinner table. “I guess things aren’t always as they seem,” she said to Carter’s father now.
“I guess not,” he said with a chuckle. He glanced toward the parking lot. “Is Victor coming today?”
Mama shook her head. “He wanted to, but he’s working. He’ll be here next week, for sure. It’s his weekend with the kids.” He wanted to? If that was true, it was news to me. I wondered if Mama made that up.
Carter’s dad leaned down, closer to Mama. “And what about you?” he almost whispered. “Will you be here?”
“Mike!” Carter’s mom said loudly. “Can you please get me another blanket from the car? It’s colder than I thought out here.”
Carter’s dad straightened, put both feet back on the ground, and winked at Mama before he looked up at his wife. “Sure thing,” he said flatly. He let his fingers brush against Mama’s arm as he walked past her, and I saw Mama shrink back.
“He’s gross,” I whispered to Mama, and she turned her head, her lips pursed.
“You hush, now. That’s impolite.”
“So was he!” I said, maybe a little too loudly.
Mama drew her eyebrows together over the bridge of her nose. “Ava. Watch your mouth. You’re too young to be talking like that about a grown-up.” She straightened in her seat and then cupped her hands around her mouth. “Go on now, Max!” she hollered as the team ran onto the field. “Push ’em back, push ’em back, waaay back!” She jumped up, shimmied her bent arms, and wiggled her tiny behind.
“Mama,” I said, cringing a bit as the other women behind us stopped talking and stared. Acting like that would just make the other mothers make fun of her—didn’t she know that?
“I think that’s a football cheer, Kelli,” Carter’s mom said, and then I saw her roll her eyes. I gritted my teeth, wishing I had something to throw at her. Something sharp and hard that would hurt.
Mama laughed and gave a little shrug. “Oh well,” she said, sitting back down. “I never could keep my sports straight. I guess it’s a good thing Max is playing and not me.”
“Oh yes,” another woman said. “What a relief.” She had brown hair and a tightly pinched mouth. “Did you remember to bring snacks?”
Mama turned to look at her and nodded. “Chocolate peanut butter cupcakes, fresh out of the oven this morning.” She grinned, awaiting approval. I held my breath.
The brown-haired woman frowned. “Peanut butter? We can’t serve that. Taylor is allergic.” She paused. “And Carter is gluten intolerant. Wheat flour is like poison for him. Didn’t you review the approved snack list we handed out at the beginning of the season?”
Mama’s smile melted away. “Oh,” she began, her voice faltering. “No. I didn’t realize—”
Carter’s mom sighed and stood up. “I can run to the co-op and grab some rice crackers and fruit,” she said.
Mama stood, as well. “Please,” she said, “let me. It was my mistake.”
“It’s fine,” the woman said as she grabbed her purse. “I’ll just go catch my husband at the car. We’ll go together.”
Mama sank back down onto the bleacher, her shoulders slumped. “I’m so sorry,” she said to the other women. “I can bring a better snack the next time.”
No one responded, and Mama turned away and faced the field. Her eyes were shiny and she held her chin high. I slipped my hand into hers and squeezed it. “I love your cupcakes,” I said. “They’re the best ones.”
This morning we were running late again. Except this time it was my fault—I’d spent too much time in the shower, conditioning my hair and carefully shaving my legs. Mama said the hair wasn’t thick enough for me to need to shave yet, but all the other girls in eighth grade did it, so I begged her to let me do it, too. “They call me Chewbacca during gym!” I told her, and she’d relented.
“Ava, hurry up, please!” Mama called out from the kitchen.
“Be right there!” I said, glancing in the full-length mirror on my closet door one last time, making sure that the outfit I’d picked out looked okay. I liked my long, purple shirt and I knew I was luckier than a lot of girls in my class; I could wear skinny jeans and still cross my legs beneath my desk. My dark brown hair was held back from my face with a thin elastic headband, and thanks to the expensive salon conditioner I’d saved up my allowance to buy, it looked shiny and smooth. Still, I found myself wishing for the millionth time that my mom would let me wear makeup. The few times I’d tried to sneak it, using my friend Bree’s mascara and lipstick in the bathroom at school, Mama had caught me, even though I thought I’d washed it all off. “You’re a natural beauty, love,” she said, cupping my face in her hands. “Let’s save the makeup for when you actually need it.”
I didn’t know why she got to be the one who decided when I needed it. It was my face. Plus, almost all the other eighth-grade girls at Seattle Academy wore makeup; I was fairly certain that meant I should get to, too. But I’d had enough arguments with her about it to understand this wasn’t a fight I was going to win.
Sighing, I grabbed her black boots, the ones she said I could borrow, pulled them on over my jeans, then lugged my heavy backpack down the hall. Mama stood by the kitchen counter, still in her pajamas, which consisted of gray yoga pants and a red T-shirt that looked tiny enough that it might have actually been my brother’s. From the back, she looked like a little girl. Her blond hair was pulled into a messy ponytail and she gripped a coffee mug with both hands, sipping from it as she stared out the window into the backyard. It was still dark, but at least it wasn’t raining. “I’m ready,” I announced.
She turned to look at me with a tired smile, and I noticed that her lips were the same pale hue as her skin, and the spaces beneath her eyes were tinged blue. For the fourth time that week, I’d woken up to the sound of the television in her bedroom in the middle of the night. She still wasn’t sleeping. “Hey there, sugar,” she said. “You’re as pretty as dew on a rose.”
I rolled my eyes a little and shook my head but smiled back at her anyway, accustomed to her flowery comparisons. She was prone to silly compliments about my looks. I didn’t really feel pretty; I was okay, I guessed, but nothing like my mom, who my friend Peter told me all the boys in my class thought was a MILF because she was blond and thin and had big boobs. I’d nodded, even though I hadn’t known what the term meant at that time, so it wasn’t until I got home and looked it up online that I wanted to barf. I knew my mom was better looking than some of my friends’ mothers, but the thought of the boys wanting to have sex with her made me cringe.
“Do you want breakfast?” Mama asked. “I made some toast. I could throw peanut butter on it so you’d get some protein.”
I shook my head. She knew I didn’t like to eat first thing in the morning, but that didn’t stop her from trying to feed me. “I can have a granola bar after homeroom.” I patted my backpack to let her know I was all set. “Are you working today?” Her job was at a fancy restaurant downtown, the place my dad used to manage before he started his own restaurant. They had met there, and she had to go back to work after he moved out three years ago. She said she liked her job because it was flexible enough that she could drive us to school in the morning and pick us up. She only worked night shifts the weekends we were with our dad.
She shook her head. “Nope. But I took a double shift tomorrow, since you two won’t be here. I’m working Sunday brunch, too.” She gave me an empty, halfhearted smile then, like she always did when she knew Max and I would be gone for the weekend.
“I’ll have her toast!” Max said, piping up from the table, where he was slurping down the last of the milk from his cereal bowl.
“Do you ever stop eating?” I asked, wrinkling my nose at him. “It’s gross.”
“You’re gross,” Max retorted, lifting his pointy chin back at me.
“Oooh, burn,” I said, rolling my eyes again. He was such a little dweeb. I looked at the clock and then my mom. “Can we go? I don’t want to be late for homeroom.”
“Yes, we should.” She shuffled over to me in her slippers and threw her slender arms around my neck. When I was wearing her boots, we were almost the same height. “I love you, baby girl,” she whispered. “So much.”
“Love you too,” I said, hugging her back. She felt fragile in my embrace, her bones like brittle twigs that might snap if I held her too tightly. She was getting so skinny; I could circle her entire wrist with my index finger and thumb and still not touch her skin. She said she ate at the restaurant after her shifts, but her clothes had started looking looser the past few months, so I wasn’t sure she was telling me the truth. She’d done the same thing after my dad moved out—no sleep and no food—but Diane made her go to the doctor for some kind of pills and she started getting better after that. I wasn’t sure if she was taking those pills anymore.
I wondered if missing her parents had anything to do with how she was feeling now. She had called them last night, but they didn’t answer the phone. They lived in a small town outside of San Luis Obispo in California, where Mama grew up, and they’d never even once come to see us, which I honestly thought was kind of strange, considering they were Mama’s only family and Max and I were their grandchildren. I guess they didn’t even think they could have a baby, but Mama was born when her mother was forty-two and Mama said they thanked God and called her their “miracle.” And even though they never visited, she still called their house a couple of times a year. When they actually answered the phone, the conversations were always short and her voice got tight and shaky as she spoke with them. Afterward, she’d usually go to her bedroom and cry. I tried not to worry about Mama too much, but she sure didn’t make it easy.
I looked over to Max, who was making fun of my hugging our mom with a goofy kissy face and pretending to hug himself. “Max,” I said sternly, “go brush your teeth. We’ll be in the car.”
“You’re not the boss of me,” Max said as he dropped his bowl into the sink with a clatter. My mother startled at the noise, sucking in a sharp breath, and pulled away from me.
“Max!” she said loudly, then took another, slower breath. She put one hand against the wall, like she suddenly had to hold herself up, then spoke again in a quieter tone. “Brush your teeth, little man, right this instant. Don’t make me get the switch.” She winked at him then, and he giggled, knowing full well our mother would never hit us. It was a joke she used, to let us know she meant business. Our dad used to say it to us, too, as a joke, but after he moved out, he stopped.
Max raced down the hallway to the bathroom and my mother stared off after him.
“Are you okay, Mama?” I asked, noticing she was breathing a little faster than usual. She kept her hand on the wall, her shoulders curled forward.
“I’m fine. Just a little dizzy, for some reason.” She turned her head and gave me a tiny smile, dropping her hand to her side and straightening her spine. “Probably too much caffeine.”
I nodded, then looked at the stack of paper on the entryway table—bills, I guessed. Ones she hadn’t paid yet. “Want me to help you write the checks tonight?” I asked as we headed out the door and toward the driveway.
“Hmm?” she murmured. “What was that?”
I felt a twinge of irritation. “The bills.” I knew my friends didn’t help their parents with this kind of thing, but it was something we did together. Mama said it was only because I had better handwriting than hers, but the last time I’d watched her try to do it alone, she started crying, so I offered to fill the checks out and she could just sign them. Max got to put the stamps on the envelopes. We sort of turned it into a game. But when I told my dad about it, the muscles around his lips got all twitchy, and I asked him if it was bad that we helped her.
“She’s a grown-up, honey,” he said, putting his long arm around my shoulders and squeezing me to him. “You’re a kid. You shouldn’t have that kind of responsibility.”
I shrugged and threw both of my arms around his waist, breathing in the earthy fragrance of roasted meat off his shirt. Some fathers wore cologne; mine wore scents born in a kitchen. “I don’t mind,” I said. I didn’t like feeling that he was criticizing her; I didn’t want to get her in trouble.
“I’ll talk with her,” he said, but I don’t think he ever did. Now that they were divorced, they only talked to each other when they had to, and when they did, it was with short, hard sentences that seemed more like weapons than words.
“When are you bringing them back?” Mama asked him when he picked us up every other Saturday. She never did quite look directly at him, either. Her eyes drifted just over his right shoulder.
“Five o’clock tomorrow,” my dad told her, sometimes even shifting his feet a little, like he couldn’t wait for her to stop moving her mouth. “Like always.” He stood in the entryway, not coming all the way into the house while we got ready to go with him.
“Just making sure,” my mom would say, her voice quavering a little, and the muscles in my dad’s face would tighten even more. It was hard to imagine they ever loved each other enough to get married. I knew they had; I’d seen their wedding picture. Mama dressed in a white princess ball gown, her glossy hair piled on top of her head in messy coils. Daddy tall and handsome in a black tuxedo, feeding her cake and trying to kiss her at the same time. They were laughing.
Now, standing next to our car, as Max finally sped down the front steps and toward us, making a sound like a jet airplane, my mom reached over and clutched my hand. “What would I do without you, baby girl?” She pulled my hand up to her mouth and kissed it.
I smiled at her, my insides shaking, not wanting to say that I sometimes wondered what she might do without me, too.
* * *
“Do you have to go to your dad’s this weekend?” Bree asked me during second lunch. At Seattle Academy, first lunch was for the kids up through fifth grade; second was for sixth through eighth. Bree and I sat together at a small table by the window, away from the other eighth-grade girls. We each had a big slice of pepperoni pizza and a chocolate milk. That was the best thing about going to a private school—the hot lunches were actually decent. The worst thing was that my brother went there, too. Occasionally, he’d see me in the hallway or when he had recess and he’d wave, do a little dance, and start singing, “Ava-Ava-bo-bava, banana-fanna-fo-fava . . . Ava!” I seriously couldn’t wait for next year, when high school would start and I wouldn’t see that little weirdo until we got home. I loved him and all, but man, could he annoy the crap out of me.
I pulled a piece of pepperoni off the slice and popped it in my mouth. “Yep,” I told Bree as I chewed. “Our dad picks us up tomorrow morning.”
“With Grace?” she said, crossing her eyes and making her lids flutter at the same time. Bree was the funniest girl I knew and wasn’t afraid of other people laughing at the things she did, which was part of why she was my friend. She had short, wispy blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and she didn’t need to wear a bra yet, but she didn’t seem to care about being like the popular girls. The girls with really rich parents and their own iPads. The girls who went behind the gym, let their boyfriends feel them up, and didn’t care who knew. The girls that part of me wanted to become.
I laughed. “Yes. I keep hoping they’ll split up. But it looks like she’s staying.” Bree’s parents were divorced, too, another reason I liked to hang out with her. She got how weird it was to have two houses to live in, two sets of rules, and parents that might have loved us but couldn’t stand each other. Her dad was a corporate lawyer, so he had to pay her mom a ton of child support for Bree. My dad gave my mom a check every month, too, but he definitely didn’t make as much money as a lawyer. He was a great cook, though, which I thought was kind of a bonus.
Bree didn’t say anything more, knowing that my dad’s girlfriend was far from my favorite subject. He had met Grace at the end of last summer and waited a couple of months to introduce us, which I guess is better than if he’d made us meet her right away. I knew he’d probably dated other women after he moved out—one time, not very long after he bought his new place, I found a pair of lacy pink women’s underwear in his hamper when I was helping him with the laundry. But Grace was the only one he wanted Max and me to get to know, so the fact that she had moved in with him last May didn’t really surprise me that much. Mostly, I just tried not to think about the fact that she slept in the same bed as him, which was hard with how many questions my mom asked when we came home from their house.
“Did you have fun with Grace?” she’d ask. “What did she feed you?” When I’d tell her that after Dad cooked, or Grace ordered pizza, we all played Scrabble or watched a movie, her shoulders would fall and her face would look like I’d hit her. I wondered why she didn’t get her own boyfriend. She was pretty enough, for sure, and I knew there were a few single dads at our school who would probably ask her out if she did her hair and wore something other than her pajamas to drop us off in the morning. But when I suggested that maybe she could go on a date, too, she waved the thought away. “You and your brother are all the love I need. Your daddy just doesn’t like to be alone.” Neither do you, I’d think. You just want to be with us instead of a date. I wondered if something was wrong with her, somehow, since after all these years she still didn’t seem to be over my dad’s leaving. Which was strange, really, because I knew that she was the one who finally asked him to go. I’d overheard the fight that made him walk out the door.
“Yo, earth to Ava!” Bree said, nudging me with the toe of her Converse. “Come in, Ava! The bell just rang. Time for social studies.” She made a face and stuck a finger in her mouth. “Like, gag me with an encyclopedia.”
I laughed again, and we cleaned up our mess and headed off to class. On the way, Whitney Blake, whose father owned a chain of organic grocery stores, sidled up next to me. She smelled of citrus and her black hair hung sleek and almost to the middle of her back. Whitney was all sweetness and light to our teachers, but she’d been known to make more than a few other girls in our class cry. I tried not to cross her path unless I absolutely had to.
“How was your lunch, Ava?” she asked, popping her pink gum as she spoke. Whitney liked everyone to know that their family’s housekeeper packed organic chicken slices, mixed greens, and some kind of cookie made with agave nectar for her lunch every day, only so Whitney could toss it all and buy whatever the cafeteria was serving with the credit card her dad gave her to use.
I shrugged one shoulder in response and kept walking, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye, wary of such a seemingly innocent question.
“Did you use your scholarship to pay for it?” she continued in a lilting tone as we walked along, pushing against the small throng of other students in the hallway. “You know, my dad gives a lot of our money to those. So, like, my family’s sort of making it possible for you to be here.”
My stomach clenched as she spoke, my cheeks flushed, and tears pricked the back of my throat. I couldn’t look at her. It wasn’t a secret that Max and I were scholarship students and that my mom sometimes served meals to the rich parents of the kids in our classes when they went to the restaurant where she worked. Max was too little to understand what people sometimes said about us, but I wasn’t. I also understood that having a lot of money didn’t just give you nice things, it gave you power. Whitney understood this, too.
“Maybe you should say thank you,” Whitney said when I didn’t respond.
I couldn’t speak. If I did, I might have cried, and that would just have given her another thing to mock.
“Hey, Whitney,” Bree said, stepping in to save me. “Maybe you should go make yourself useful and throw up your lunch. If you hurry, maybe your ass won’t need its own zip code.”
Hearing this, Whitney’s normally pretty, unblemished face briefly twisted into an ugly sneer, but she kept her eyes on me. “You should think about trying out for the dance team,” she said. “Maybe Mrs. McClain will feel sorry for you as an underprivileged student and let you join.”
Her gaggle of friends tittered at this, my eyes blurred, and Bree grabbed me by the arm. “C’mon. Let’s get to class.”
Leaving Whitney and her friends behind us, I let Bree lead me past the few remaining lockers before Mr. Tanner’s room, swallowing hard to make sure any remnants of my tears were gone. “Thanks,” I said as we slid into our seats next to each other.
Bree smiled, then pushed her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose. “She’s a total bitch, so don’t listen to her, all right?”
I nodded but still felt the sting of Whitney’s words itching beneath my skin. It wasn’t like we were poor; my parents paid for some of our tuition, just not all of it. The one thing my mom and dad still agreed on was Max and me getting the best education we could, and Seattle Academy was the best.
“You’re not going to try out for dance team, are you?” Bree asked.
I shook my head and gave her a closed-lipped smile. My mom loved to dance—she’d been a cheerleader in high school, and it would have made her happy if I did try out, but I knew that getting on the team would mean I’d be away from the house more and Max would have to deal with Mama on his own. He was too young to handle one of her crying sessions when I wasn’t there. Even if I’d wanted to join, it just wasn’t an option.
I took a couple of deep breaths, the tension in my body relaxing just enough to let me pay attention when Mr. Tanner told us to settle down and began his lecture on women’s suffrage. He had only been talking for about twenty minutes when the black phone on his desk rang. He nodded as he listened, thanked whoever had called, and hung up. Only the front office used that phone, so I wondered who had done something bad enough to interrupt class.
“Ava?” Mr. Tanner said, and my belly immediately flip-flopped. “You need to get your things from your locker and head to the office, okay?”
I sighed. “Is it Max?” That little monster. Mama’s going to be pissed if he got in trouble.
Mr. Tanner pressed his lips together and gave his head a quick shake. Bree shot me a questioning look, and I shrugged slightly, then closed up my folder. Every eye in the room was on me, and I felt my face getting warm again. A few whispers started, but Mr. Tanner shushed them. I slowly put on my jacket and took careful, deliberate steps toward the front of the room. I stopped in front of Mr. Tanner’s desk, searching his face for some kind of clue, but there was nothing there. “Is everything all right?” I asked him, and he held my gaze for a moment before dropping it to the floor.
“You just need to go to the office,” he repeated, so I walked out the door and made my way alone down the long, quiet hall.