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My heart raced as I stumbled down the steps. I needed to make sure I wasn't having a horrible hallucination, but I really wished that someone had spiked my soda and that drugs were distorting my reality. Like I was witnessing a train wreck, I wanted to look away but couldn't take my eyes off them.
Two people in a drunken clutch, their arms and legs pressed up against the wall. Two people who had absolutely no right to be locking lips-or any other body parts, for that matter.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. The only sound I could manage was an incoherent, panicky mumble. I turned and ran back up the stairs, pushing through a swarm of bodies until I was out of the house.
"Jaz." My mom's voice called my name and I jumped, spilling hot decaf mocha on my hand. Normally the fragrance of specialty coffees soothed me, but on this day Grinds smelled pretty much like burnt beans.
"Ouch! You okay? Sorry I startled you. It looks like you're in your own world back there."
"I'm fine." My hand stung, but I placed the coffee cup on the counter where the employees of Grinds arranged finished drinks like expensive steaming trophies. "Just working on a song in my head," I lied, shaking my scalded hand. "This decaf mocha is yours? It's not your usual caffeine fix."
"I know." She reached for the drink. "You and your song writing." She half smiled as she took a quick sip, then licked stray foam off her top lip. "We'll sit and chat before we go shopping?"
"Sure. Talk is cheap." I forced a smile of my own. I should have canceled and told her to go shopping without me. But I had to tell her what I'd seen. How could I not?
"Cheaper than this coffee anyway." She turned her head to search the café for an open table. "I'll find a seat. Grab a drink and join me when you're done, okay?"
She sashayed off without waiting for my answer, disappearing into the semi-full coffee shop. Grinds is our town's attempt to give Starbucks competition. Amber, the owner, hopes coffee will be her own personal lottery since Tadita is so close to Seattle.
I checked the clock. Five minutes until my shift ended. What I really wanted to do was bolt out the back door and jog home. That wouldn't mean breaking much of a sweat. I could crawl into my bed and pull the covers over my head before Mom noticed I'd left Grinds.
Sighing, I checked for new customers. No one approached the front counter with an urgent coffee craving, so I hurried to the back sink and shoved my hand under cold water to soothe the burn from the spilled coffee.
As I ran the water, a tall guy wearing a Grinds getup strolled through the employee door, tying the strings of an apron behind his back. Longish hair as black as charcoal brushed the shoulders of his white T-shirt. Hello, hot. Jackson Morgan, the new boy at Westwind High. Supposedly he'd failed kindergarten and had just gotten out of some school for delinquent boys. For dealing drugs. But I managed to stay composed when he nodded at me.
"Hey, Jaz. How's it going?" He sounded amused, as if he'd just remembered a good joke.
"Uh. Fine." He knew my name? He was in my English class, but like everyone else, he hadn't bothered to acknowledge my existence. Until now.
"Excellent." A pause. His mouth turned up in a crooked grin, and his eyes sparkled. "I'm fine too, by the way. Thanks for asking."
So much for composed. My cheeks burned and I studied my shoes, not sure how to reply. People generally didn't talk to me much. I never had to worry about what to say back.
"I'm just kidding." His voice was soft, almost apologetic, and I glanced up, noticing how nice and straight his teeth were.
He was looking at me, his eyes narrowed like he was trying to figure something out. I blushed even more at the scrutiny. "No need to be shy. I don't bite."
I was torn between wanting him to leave me alone so I didn't have to come up with more to say and wanting him to keep talking. He'd already gone deeper than a lot of people did. Most kids at school assumed I was stuck-up. And that was almost better than shy. Shy made me feel like a failure. I took a step back and reached for my bracelet, rubbing the guitar charm Grandpa Joe had given me on my thirteenth birthday, right before he died.
"So was that your mom I saw you talking to?" Jackson glanced out at the seating area.
My gaze followed his. "Yeah. That's my mom." Bracing myself, I waited for the usual questions people asked when they saw my mom for the first time: Are you adopted? What color is your dad?
"Cool," he said. "Go ahead and do your thing. I can take care of stuff here. We can catch up later."
He made it sound like a promise. I tried to ignore the fluttering in my stomach. "You know what you're doing?"
It came out sounding like I was accusing him of some evil act. God. I was so not good at talking to boys. What I'd wanted to say was thank you for not being a jerk. Thank you for being nice. I filed the feeling. Maybe I could replicate it later in a song.
"Nope." He grinned. "But hey, I'll figure it out. Amber trained me. Monkey see, monkey do."
"Sorry," I mumbled. "I didn't mean it that way."
He twirled the hoop earring in his left ear. "I can handle it. No problem. Selling a legal drug, you know? Caffeine."
"Uh. Yeah." That seemed like a cue for me to say something about the rumors, but I was too chicken to go there.
He grinned again as if he'd read my mind. Hot. Definitely hot. I wondered if working at Grinds was part of his rehab or something.
He glanced toward my mom and I held my breath, praying he wouldn't slobber over her or say something obnoxious and ruin my impression of him.
"Your mom's pretty young," he said.
It sounded like an observation, not a crush.
"She's pretty blond too," I added.
"They say blonds have more fun," he quipped.
"She did when she was seventeen."
Mouth. Shut. Please.
He laughed, an interesting baritone sound. Almost musical. "That's how old she was when she had you?"
"Yup." I lifted my shoulder in a half-shrug.
"That's pretty young." He paused. "So? Is she cool?"
He sounded as if he cared what I thought about her and not the other way around. It surprised me. He surprised me. "She's okay." I rolled my charm in my fingers. "I don't live with her." I frowned. I hadn't planned to tell him that. I don't usually advertise my weird family situation so freely. Even though in a town the size of Tadita, everyone pretty much knew already.
I waited, but he didn't say more. It didn't matter. People talked. They always did. He'd probably heard all the stories about me. Loner. Or loser. Depending on who was doing the telling. From someone at my high school, it had to be loser. So why was he being nice to me?
"I live with my grandma too," he said. He gestured his head toward the café. "Go talk to your mom. I got it covered."
"Thanks." I pulled off my stained blue apron and tossed it into the corner laundry bin as Jackson took over my shift. He lived with his grandma? Intrigued, I stared at him while he got to work. Even a semi-awkward conversation with the school's newest bad boy beat joining my mom. Besides, who knew if the drug rumors were true. I vowed not to pay attention to gossip. He didn't appear to have labeled me based on what he'd heard.
He looked over and caught me watching, and my cheeks reheated. He grinned in a friendly way, but I quickly turned and pushed through the employee door.
I inhaled a deep breath as I made my way into the café. "Cherry, Cherry" by Neil Diamond piped in over the speakers-one of Grandpa Joe's favorite songs. At the thought of him, I forced my shoulders back.
Tell the truth, he'd have said. Always tell the truth.
Even if it meant breaking someone's world apart? The last thing in the world I wanted was intimate involvement with my mom's personal life, but I'd had a front-row seat. With binoculars.
Around the room, couples chatted at small, intimate tables. A group of girls giggled together, chairs and tables pushed up to each other. I stared at my mom as I approached her. A low-cut tank top peeked out from under her blazer. She liked to emphasize her amazing cleavage.
Another check on the long list of things I didn't inherit from her. Boobs. Nope. Blond straight hair. Nope. Coloring. Nope. I'm more a muddy mix of black and white. Mixing colors is pretty basic stuff for artists, but it's trickier with people.
"You look nice," I said as I sat. "You came straight from work?"
Her eyes widened. Oops. Normally I'd be more careful about pouring it on too thick, but she'd need it after what I had to tell her. And she did look nice.
She nodded. "Thanks." She lifted her mug and sipped her coffee. "I swear I'd almost prefer to wear a uniform like yours. So much easier."
I glanced at my smeared black pants and dingy white T-shirt, the lame Grinds uniform. "This?"
"Well. It's not expensive. And easy to coordinate. Besides you're so tall and slim, and with your coloring, you look good in anything you wear."
"My coloring makes me look cheap and easy?" I tucked my long legs under the table. Being around my glamorous and petite mom always made me feel like a clumsy giraffe.
"I said ‘not expensive and easy to coordinate.' You're listening with marshmallows in your ears. You're beautiful." She grinned. "You're not having anything to drink?"
"I'm not thirsty."
"Lacey's not working?" Mom asked.
I glanced away. "No. A new guy is." I looked behind the coffee counter at Jackson. He was making a latte for a girl. She twirled blond hair around her finger and giggled as she chatted with him. She obviously had no problems with flirting.
"That's too bad," Mom said, and I focused back on her as her forehead wrinkled. The almost four-year age difference between Lacey and me didn't bother her. I think she was just glad I'd finally found a friend.
Mom didn't understand how I could go to school with the same kids for years and not have a gaggle of girls to gossip with. She'd had oodles of friends and dated the hottest football player at my age. But look what that had gotten her.
I'd never told her the truth about what happened to me and still wasn't even sure which one of us I was protecting.
"I thought Lacey might want to shop with us," Mom said. "The sales at the mall are supposed to be amazing. And she's so good at picking out bargains."
My underarms felt sticky with sweat. I sat up straighter. "Lacey is not coming." I didn't think we'd be shopping anyhow, but I didn't say that. Not yet.
Her expression softened. "No big deal. Just you and me is good." She leaned back, studying me. "Hey, I know what looks different about you. You don't have your guitar. You know, you look almost naked without it slung over your shoulder. "
"Why would I bring it shopping?" At the same time, I wished I'd brought it so I could clutch it to my chest like a kid with a teddy bear. My guitar was my most prized possession, and holding it gave me more comfort than I'd even realized until that moment.
Mom took another sip of her decaf, frowning at me over the top of her mug. "Is everything okay? You seem kind of...off."
I shrugged and stared at her coffee cup.
"How's Grandma?" she asked.
"Grandma?" I frowned and glanced up at her. "The same. Busy."
"Busy saving the world?" She sipped her coffee again and then placed the mug on the table. "You're happy with Grandma, aren't you, Jaz?"
My stomach did a backflip.
"No. No. Don't look so worried. I'm not going to ask you to move in with me and Simon again."
My stomach did a double flip then, and I swallowed hard, trying to block out an image of Simon. When Mom and Simon first moved in together years before, Mom asked me to move in with them, but Grandma and Grandpa fought her. I'd been glad no one made me choose then. I certainly didn't want to live with Mom and Simon now.
"Grandma would have a fit if I tried to take you away from her, especially with Grandpa gone."
I slumped down in my chair, wondering how she managed to read my mind so well sometimes. And other times, not at all. I looked at her perfectly manicured fingers wrapped around her coffee cup, still tan from weekends at the beach. Even sun kissed, they were so much lighter than my own skin.
"I guess I'm just feeling kind of guilty." The corner of her lip quivered. "I was so young when I had you. The same age you are now." She glanced around the coffee shop and then back at me. "It was okay? Growing up the way you did?"
"It works for us." I lifted a shoulder, wondering why she was bringing this up now. Did she sense I was about to rip apart her world?
"I love you just as much as if I'd raised you myself," she said.
I frowned. "Probably more. Grandma says I'm a pain in the ass."
Anxiety bubbled around in my already troubled belly.
"I have to talk to you about something important," she said just as I opened my mouth to speak.
I shut my trap and rubbed my guitar charm, swallowing the growing lump of dread in my throat. Had she found out? I closed my eyes for a second, bracing myself for a tough conversation.
"I'm pregnant," she said.
I opened my eyes. "What?"
She giggled. "Pregnant."
Glass tinkled in the background. A shout of laughter erupted from the group of girls at the joined tables. I blinked, thrown completely off guard.
"What do you mean?" I wished I could be teleported to an alternate universe where none of this was happening.
"I think you know what I mean." Her smile wobbled. "You okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Pregnant? I coughed. This made things worse. Much, much worse. She frowned. Waiting for me to say something. Anything.
"No. It's...um, you don't look pregnant," I managed.
She wiggled in her chair. "Actually I do." She stood up and turned sideways, thrusting out her belly and placing her hand on it. Two older men at the table beside us studied her belly too. It did stick out. A small bulge where months before it had been perfectly flat in a bikini.
I shot death rays at the men, who quickly looked away.
She sat down. "I'm almost five months already. Look at me. I should have known, but I'm so irregular. And my sex drive is fine."
She smiled apologetically as my cheeks reddened and I glanced at the table beside us, knowing the men could hear.
"Sorry," she said. "Too much info, right?"
"Way too much." Images flashed in my head. "Simon's sex drive seems fine too," I mumbled.
"What?" Her smile vanished, and I saw how her lipstick was bleeding over her top lip. She didn't look so perfect anymore.
I thought about shoving my fist down my throat. "I'm just shocked. You know?" My attempt at a laugh rang feeble and insincere. "You're kind of old to be pregnant." It sounded mean even to my ears, but I couldn't take it back. There was so much that couldn't be taken back.
She forced a smile. "I'm not that old. And hey, you'll be a big sister. It'll be fun."
"Yeah. Fun." I choked on a bitter laugh. "At least the baby will be half black. People might believe I'm actually related to someone in the family now."
I glanced around the café, wishing someone would come and interrupt us, wishing Jackson would accidentally start a fire behind the counter, anything to get me away from this conversation with my mom. When my gaze returned to her face, I winced at the need in her eyes. As if she wanted my approval. Needed it. "When did you find out?" I asked, my voice weak and crackling as I tried to sound like I was happy for her.
"Yesterday. At my physical. When I couldn't remember when I'd had my last period, my doctor insisted on a test. Voilà! Pregnant."
"How's Simon taking it?" I asked, chewing on my lip. I already had a pretty good idea.
Mom played with her hair, a hint of a giggle back on her lips. "I think it kind of freaked him out. That's what I get for dating a younger man." She lifted her shoulder and took a quick sip of her decaf and then put the mug down.
"He went out last night with his brother. To celebrate." She made air quote marks with her fingers. "He was hung over and snoring in bed when I went to work this morning." She looked down, tracing a finger along the rim of her mug. "He hasn't gotten drunk in a long time. I guess he just needed to deal with the news."
"I guess he did." My voice cracked again at the end of the sentence.
She glanced up. "It's no big deal. He's not usually a big drinker."
Which was a good thing, apparently.
She folded a hand across her belly, oblivious to the thoughts bouncing around in my head.
"Anyhow, he'll be a great dad. I know he will. Once he's used to the idea. He likes kids. "
Yeah. I've seen that too.
She crossed her legs and leaned back, and I noticed the men watching her with matching expressions of disappointment and openly eavesdropping on our conversation now.
"I'm already past the worst part of pregnancy, and I didn't even know it. How funny is that?"
"Hilarious. Hey, I know. Maybe I'll get pregnant too. You could be a pregnant grandma. Now that would be funny."
"Jaz." She uncrossed her leg and then glared at the men, not as unaware of them as she'd pretended to be. They quickly concentrated on their coffee.
"I thought you'd be a little happier, you know? You and Simon are friends. He'll be like a stepdad now."
A wave of nausea gnawed at my stomach. "He's not my stepdad." I pushed myself away from the table. I couldn't be the one to ruin everything for her. Not now. But I also couldn't make it through another minute with her.
"Listen. I meant to tell you right away that I have an English project to finish. I forgot about it, but it's pretty important and I have to get it done this weekend. Can we go shopping another day?" I stood up.
"Really?" She blinked quickly. "I mean, sure. I was hoping you'd help me pick out some maternity clothes, but yeah, I guess we can do it another time."
"I really do have to go," I said, feeling worse.
"You sure you're okay?" she asked. "You're not upset about me and Simon?"
"I'm fine. Just, you know, swamped with work." My toe tapped up and down, wanting to run.
"You like Simon, right?" Her eyes widened. Her bottom lip quivered a tiny bit. "I thought you'd be excited about a baby."
"I'll see you soon." Instead of answering, I turned from the table and bolted.
The truth was that I had liked her boyfriend. Cougar Bait I called him as a joke because of his age. Too young to be my dad. He was one of the few black people I knew, and we'd gotten along great.
Until last night.
Because last night at Marnie O'Reilly's party, my life had suddenly morphed into a bad imitation of The Jerry Springer Show.
It was Simon. Simon with his tongue down the throat of Lacey Stevens. My mom's boyfriend with my best friend. And how could I possibly tell my mom that now?