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Just when I’m starting to think she might be dead or something, the phone rings. I lunge for it, banging my shin on the coffee table and sending Mom’s ashtray tumbling to the floor. Ashes scatter on the burnt-orange carpet.
“Mom?” I say again.
“Hello, there.” It’s a man’s voice, low and fakey-smooth. At first I’m scared it’s Drake. Then he says, “I’m calling from Rainier Collection Services. Is this Ms. J. Calhoun?”
I put on my politest voice. “Sorry, you must have the wrong number.” Then I set the receiver down with a click and remind myself for the zillionth time not to answer without checking the caller ID. Sinking onto the couch, I study the new bruise on my shin, just above the ankle bracelet Mom made me for my birthday last year. I don’t know what I’m getting myself so worked up for. Mom has had to work late plenty of times.
I close my eyes and listen. It’s almost eleven, and the only sounds are the thunk our kitchen clock makes and the swoosh of cars hydroplaning through the lake-size puddle in the street outside. I keep waiting for one of those cars to stop and Mom to come swooping into the apartment with her jasmine-and-cigarette smell and her “Hey, honey pie, you still awake?” and her big, husky laugh. But the cars just roll on by.
I’m kind of wishing the Professor would call, take my mind off Mom. A couple of weeks ago he called while Mom was at work, and we argued for like an hour about whether other people really exist or we just make them up in our heads. He thinks we create the whole world in our minds. I say that’s a load of crap, because why would we create a bunch of wars and pollution? He may be the smartest kid at Ballard High, but that doesn’t mean he’s right about everything. It’s probably too late for him to call tonight, though. He’s got school tomorrow.
The quiet in the apartment is starting to creep me out, so I fish the remote from between the couch cushions and turn on the TV. A Family Guy rerun is on the only channel we get, and I’ve seen it like fifty million times. Characters from another show float across the screen like ghosts. I turn it off.
Thunk, says the kitchen clock.
The phone rings again, and this time I remember to check the caller ID. Calhoun, M. Mom’s sister, Mindy. Miss Perfect. Like her house, for example. Perfect white couch, perfect polished wood floor, perfect matching wine glasses. She acts like just because we live in an apartment, we’re a couple of lowlifes. No way am I picking up for her.
When the phone stops ringing, I punch in the number for Mom’s work.
Her boss answers, but I can hardly hear him over the voices and loud music in the background. Wednesday is No-Cover Night at the club; the place is probably packed.
“Hi, Alex. It’s me again.”
“Hey, Stevie-girl. I already told you, your mom’s off tonight.”
“I thought she might—”
“Sorry, haven’t seen her since yesterday morning.” He clicks his tongue. “What’s she doing, leaving you all alone like that?”
I force a laugh. “Hey, I’m fifteen, remember? I can take care of myself.”
“Still, that’s awful young for—”
“Oh, here she is right now. Hi, Mom!” I call toward the front door.
“Let me talk—”
I hang up before he can finish.
Thunk, says the clock.
There is one other place Mom could be. When I grit my teeth and press the button on the caller ID a couple of times, sure enough, the name comes up: Uttley, Drake.
I’ve only ever met him once, but even seeing his name makes my throat go dry. The corn dog and fries I ate for dinner start kicking around in my stomach. Someone shouts out in the street, so I shut the window. But that makes me feel more sweaty, more closed in, so I open it again. I try to make myself pick up the phone and call Drake’s number to see if Mom’s there, but I can’t. I just can’t.
The phone rings again. Aunt Mindy. What does she keep calling for? It’s not like she and Mom are best buddies or anything. She’s only ever been over once that I know of, and that was only to drop off a check. Another time, she lied about us to Child Protective Services, tried to get them to take me away. CPS. They go after parents who tie their kids up in the basement and feed them moldy bread. Still, what if it’s important? What if it’s something about Mom? I reach for the phone, but my heart’s beating so fast I can hardly breathe. I change my mind and let it ring.
All these calls are making me jittery, so I turn on the TV again. There’s an even louder shout outside and then the sound of breaking glass. Every thunk of the kitchen clock makes me worry more about Mom.
Finally I can’t sit still another second, so I decide to clean the apartment and surprise her when she gets home. After I shove the stack of bills inside the drawer of the coffee table and arrange the cushions so they hide the purple wine stain on the couch, I find the vacuum wedged behind some boxes at the back of Mom’s bedroom closet and plug it in.
It won’t turn on. I kick it twice, the second time so hard I chip the black polish off my big toenail. That doesn’t do anything but make my toe throb. When I plug it into a different outlet, it makes a noise like a jet plane taking off, but at least it runs. I go over every inch of the apartment. It takes me forever.
But I can’t get rid of Mom’s ashes. I rub and rub and rub at them so hard with the vacuum, I’m surprised I don’t tear the carpet. I get down on my knees and try to scrape them up with my fingernails, but all that does is spread them around and make the tips of my fingers raw. When I sit up and wipe my cheek, I’m surprised to find it’s damp.
I’m just about to give up and put away the vacuum when there’s a knock at the front door. I freeze.
“Stevie?” someone calls. “It’s me, sweetie!”
The voice is so much like Mom’s that I rush to the door. Then it hits me who the voice belongs to.
I crack it open, and sure enough, there’s Aunt Mindy.
Aunt Mindy shoves her way into the apartment and throws herself at me. Her plum-colored exercise outfit—leggings with matching top—is slippery against my bare skin, and she smells like some kind of tropical fruit.
“You didn’t answer my calls,” she says. “I was getting worried.”
I wiggle out of her grasp. “I was in the shower. What are you doing here, anyway?”
She takes one look at my face and says, “Oh, sweetheart, you’ve been crying.”
I swipe at my eyes. “Allergies.”
I’d forgotten how much Aunt Mindy looks like Mom. Same curly dark hair, olive-colored skin, and sharp nose as all of us Calhouns. But even though Aunt Mindy is taller than Mom, her hair and body are tight and trim instead of spilling over like foam from a mug of beer. I can’t figure out what she’s doing here, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be good.
“Did something happen to Mom?” I ask.
She pushes past me and scans the living room. “I take it she’s not here.”
“She’s at work.”
“I called the club. They said she hasn’t been in since yesterday morning.” She shakes her head. “Classic June, leaving you alone this time of night.”
I frown at her. “Why are you bugging her at work?”
She looks me up and down, like she’s checking out my outfit: a pair of red and black men’s boxers I picked up at the thrift store and a teeny pink Hello Kitty tank. Mom says I’ve got style, but obviously, Aunt Mindy doesn’t get it. I’m hoping she doesn’t notice the messed-up polish on my big toenail.
She puts her hands on her nonexistent hips. “You’re looking thin. Are you getting enough to eat?”
I roll my eyes. This is so Aunt Mindy, sticking her big fat nose in our business.
Her leggings make a swishing sound as she bustles into the kitchen. It’s embarrassing, the way they’re so tight you can see the outline of her butt. She pulls open the fridge, peers inside, and shakes her head. “I bet you haven’t had a bite of dinner.”
“I had a corn dog.”
She gets this look on her face like I just told her I ate bug snot. “A corn dog? Oh, honey, isn’t she feeding you any vegetables?”
“I got it at the 7-Eleven. And it came with fries.” Like it’s any of her business.
“I don’t believe it. She has you eating dinner at 7-Eleven while she runs around all hours of the night.”
She heads for the living room, and I’m sure she’s about to pick up the phone and call CPS.
I’m right behind her. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” She stops, and her dark eyes narrow. “Where is she, Stevie?”
I shrug and stare at my mutant toenail.
“Come on. I know something’s going on here. I heard some disturbing news today about that . . . place she works at. I was hoping it wasn’t true, but—”
“What disturbing news?”
She grabs my hand. “Tell me the truth, Stevie. Has she been acting different lately? Has she been spending long periods away from home? Have strange people been calling here?”
“No!” I jerk my hand away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“When did you last see her?”
I cross my arms over my chest.
She glances toward the phone. I can’t take the chance she might actually pick it up.
“Yesterday. I saw her yesterday morning.”
Her hand flies to her mouth. “You’ve been alone here for two days?”
I’m not about to tell her, but it’s actually been three. Leave it to Aunt Mindy to make a federal case out of nothing. “It’s not a big deal. I’m totally used to it.”
She moves toward the phone, and I’m ready to tackle her if she tries to pick it up. But she passes it to finger the dried-up leaves of the plant on the windowsill. “Poor little hydrangea. I bet no one’s watered you in ages.”
She’s right about that. Some neighbor lady gave the plant to Mom about a month ago. It’s kind of weird-looking, with these little flowers bunched into round clusters that look like blue popcorn balls nestled in the green leaves. Mom stuck it by the window. I don’t think she’s looked at it since.
“It’s just a plant,” I say.
She looks at the plant and then at me. Her lips get so thin they pretty much disappear. “I’m getting you out of here, Stevie.”
“No way. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Either you come with me, or I’ll have to start making some calls. Now go pack your stuff.”
I stare at her, trying to figure out if she’ll really do it. Mom’s told me a hundred times that Mindy loves to mess with your mind. Still, I can’t take any chances.
“What if Mom comes back and finds me gone?”
“Leave her a note.” She fishes through her purse and hands me a pen.
I glare at her and pull an envelope from under the coffee table. Mom, I scrawl on the back, At Mindy’s. I sign it S.
“Fine,” I say as I slap the note next to Mom’s ashtray. “I’ll spend the night at your place. But I’m not packing anything, because I’m coming right back here tomorrow.”
She lifts the plant off the windowsill. I swear she’s got tears in her eyes. How lame can you get, crying over a stupid plant?
“Actually,” she says, “I wouldn’t count on that.”
“Get up, Stevie,” a voice says way too early the next morning.
For a second I’m not sure where I am. But when I open my eyes and see Aunt Mindy standing over me with an “I Love Pilates” coffee mug in her hand, it all comes crashing back. I also realize why I slept so well. The bed in her guest room is big and soft, not lumpy like the one I usually sleep on. Still, I’d give anything to be in my own bed right now.
She moves in close, and I can smell coffee on her breath. “Come on, lazybones. I’ve got a mat class at eight.”
Aunt Mindy owns a Pilates studio, which, as far as me and Mom can tell, is where a bunch of rich ladies go to tighten their butts. “Have fun,” I mumble, and then pull the blankets over my head.
She pulls them right back off. “I’m going to drop you at school on my way.”
School. The word hits me with a hollow thump, like the thud a rock makes when you drop it in a deep hole. “Can’t go to school,” I say. I’m too foggy to be creative, so I go for the oldest excuse in the book. “Don’t feel good.”
She presses the back of her hand against my forehead. “You feel okay to me.”
I pinch my thigh hard to make my eyes tear up. “Please, not today.”
This time her voice is softer. “You’re stressed about your mom, aren’t you? Tell you what, you stay home and rest. I’ll give school a call.”
Call school? Mayday, we have a problem here. I sit up. “You don’t have to call. I just need to bring a note when I go back.”
She frowns. “Is that so?” Then she glances at her watch. “Look, kiddo, I’ve really got to run. There’s stuff in the fridge if you’re hungry. I’ve got some DVDs in the cabinet under the TV, and you’re welcome to root through my library. I’ll bring us home something for dinner. You like Chinese?”
“I’m interviewing a new instructor at five, so I’ll probably be home about six-thirty. And don’t worry about your mom, Stevie. Let me handle that.”
She finally leaves me alone, and a few minutes later I hear her take off out the front door. The silence that blankets the house is almost as cozy as the yellow checkered quilt that covers me. In spite of myself, I relax into it. For once I don’t have to listen for the phone. I sigh and let myself drift off to sleep again.
When I wake up it’s after eleven, and I’ve got a caffeine-withdrawal headache from hell. I hustle into the kitchen and pour myself what’s left in the coffeemaker, but it’s so bitter I have to spit it out in the sink. The plant from our apartment sits on the kitchen counter with water droplets on its leaves. Which kind of pisses me off. That plant was Mom’s. So what if she forgot to water it?
After I rinse the coffee mug and fill it with water from the tap, I stand back and check out Aunt Mindy’s kitchen. Disgustingly perfect, of course. Lacy curtains flutter in the windows, and the sun reflecting on the yellow table makes it look like a pool of melted butter. I pull the curtains aside and see her perfect backyard. Thick green bushes dotted with pink flowers line the fence, and a pine tree towers in one corner.
With Aunt Mindy gone, I decide it’s time to do a little snooping around. I carry my mug of water into the dining room, where I run my hands along the smooth, polished wood of the table and open the cabinets to check out her fine china. I already know the bathroom’s got a huge tub and a tile shower with sliding glass doors, but I had no idea Aunt Mindy had a flat-screen TV in her bedroom. With a TV like that, I can’t figure out why she has like five thousand books. I end my tour in the living room, with its fancy piano, which I’ll bet no one’s ever played, and an L-shaped white couch. Big bucks is what I’m thinking.
Me and Mom do this thing when we’re bored where we imagine the house we’re going to buy once she gets enough money to get her jewelry business going and we don’t have to live in apartments anymore. It’s got a bedroom for each of us, a bathroom like Aunt Mindy’s with a shower and a tub, and a living room even cooler than this one. We call it our NTD House. NTD stands for not too distant, as in Mom’s making some killer business connections right now, so we’re going to have a house like that in the not-too-distant future. Oh, and it’s got a nice wide front porch where Mom can go for a smoke.
I picture Mom kicking back on a porch swing, blowing smoke out the side of her mouth the way she does, and suddenly I need to talk to her so bad it hurts. I dial our number on Aunt Mindy’s phone, but it just rings. I hang up before the answering machine kicks in. You never know with Mom. Sometimes she likes to lie in bed, enjoy her cigarette, and ignore the phone.
I scarf down a bowl of cereal and throw on some clothes. I know Aunt Mindy wouldn’t like it, but I’ve got to go back to the apartment. I’ve got to see if Mom is there.
Posted June 25, 2012
Stevie just wants a normal life--to have a mom who is there for her, a mom who does't take off and leave her fifteen-year-old daughter alone for days, a mom who can stay away from the meth that has so dramatically changed her life. Goody two-shoes Aunt Mindy thinks she can save Stevie and even sets her up with a tutor, as if that will solve all Stevie's problems. The draw of Stevie's bad-boy boyfriend, Drake, complicates her life, as does bad-boy turned animal rescuer, Alan. Set in Seattle, this story details the decisions a teen has to make to bring order and stability to her life. In the light of drug use by loved ones, will Stevie make the right choice? Your heart will break for Stevie as she navigates the messy relationships and pressures of school. A touching look at how decisions made by others can influence the lives and decisions of teens. Might be most appropriate for high school students due to repeated instances of drug use (which are entirely appropriate for the story). Thanks to Puget Sound Council for this review copy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.