"Fans of John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Sharon Flake will find much to love in [Don't Fail Me Now]."
--School Library Journal
Michelle and her little siblings Cass and Denny are African-American and living on the poverty line in urban Baltimore, struggling to keep it together with their mom in jail and only Michelle’s part-time job at the Taco Bell to sustain them.
Leah and her stepbrother Tim are white and middle class from suburban Maryland, with few worries beyond winning lacrosse games and getting college applications in on time.
Michelle and Leah only have one thing in common: Buck Devereaux, the biological father who abandoned them when they were little.
After news trickles back to them that Buck is dying, they make the uneasy decision to drive across country to his hospice in California. Leah hopes for closure; Michelle just wants to give him a piece of her mind.
Five people in a failing, old station wagon, living off free samples at food courts across America, and the most pressing question on Michelle’s mind is: Who will break down first--herself or the car? All the signs tell her they won’t make it. But Michelle has heard that her whole life, and it’s never stopped her before....
Una LaMarche triumphs once again with this rare and compassionate look at how racial and social privilege affects one family in crisis in both subtle and astonishing ways.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||622 KB|
|Age Range:||12 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sunday Night/Monday Morning
“Michelle? I’m scared.”
Denny’s voice cuts through the static that’s been building in my brain, a surround-sound symphony of panic made even worse by the digital hiss and spit of the police intercom. My little brother nestles his face into my side, and I lift my half-asleep hand to rest on the soft, tight curls at the nape of his neck.
“It’s okay,” I say, squeezing him three times in quick succession, which is our family code for it’s going to be okay. The simple act still soothes me, even though now that I’m grown I can see the irony: A family that needs that kind of a code is not now, and has probably never been, okay. I bend down to kiss the top of his head. “Can you go back to sleep?”
Denny shrugs, burrowing deeper into my T-shirt. “Ina wanu gotslepgin,” he mumbles into my armpit.
He looks up at me with big, watery eyes. “I don’t want you to go to sleep again,” he says.
“Oh, I wasn’t sleeping, only . . .” Only paralyzed with anxiety. Not exactly a bedtime story fit for a first grader. “I was just zoning out.”
“I want you to stay with me,” he whimpers.
They’ll try to split you up! I get a flash of my mom, wild-eyed with terror.
“I will, meatball, I promise.” I use our family’s pet name for him—Denny was the roundest, brownest baby you ever saw—in a cheap attempt to make him feel safe and am rewarded instantly with a teary, hesitant smile that turns into a yawn halfway through, revealing a missing front tooth that—surprise, surprise—the “Tooth Fairy” still owes him for. She tends to save her quarters for other things. I feel another twinge of dread.
Don’t let them split you up!
“Hey, do you have any homework we could finish?” I ask, trying to sound like this is a normal, fun activity that siblings often do together when they find themselves stuck in a police precinct at one A.M. on a school night.
Denny nods and leans down, sending the cavernous neck of his men’s-size Goodwill T-shirt sliding up over the back of his big mug-handle ears, and pulls his backpack out from under Cass’s feet, which causes my sleeping sister to thrash dramatically before burying her face back into her hoodie. The officer at the front desk, a hard-looking Latina with her hair pulled back so tight it gives her cartoon-villain eyebrows, glances up at the commotion and glares at us, and my jaw tenses.
We don’t want to be here either.
Fresh shame floods my cheeks as I think back to all of the hushed whispers and pitying glances that greeted us when we got brought in four hours ago, and also to the tall, pasty cop who poked his head out of a door down the hall and made a joke about “crack babies” to whoever was inside.
“Here,” Denny says, holding a sheet of paper up in front of me, interrupting my revenge fantasy about punching that ignorant douche right in the center of his big pie-dough face. It’s a photocopy of a drawing of a wide, squat tree with two big branches that curl out from the center, making a heart in the middle. Inside the big, fluffy outline of leaves there are four rows of blank boxes. At the top, in a thick, curly font, it says my family. “I’m s’posed to fill it in, but I forget how,” he says, rubbing his eyes.
I remember this assignment. Denny’s in first grade now and has the same teacher I had when I went to his school eleven years ago, Mrs. Mastino. I remember filling out my family tree and having my mother proudly stick it to the fridge with three letter magnets: M, H, and D for my initials. I remember how it stayed up there for two years before she finally ripped it up and threw it away along with all of the other memories of him.
I take the paper from Denny and point to the bottom row of boxes. “You fill it in starting backward,” I explain, furrowing my brow, wishing I had a coffee or a soda to aid me in my fake enthusiasm. “This here is us: you, me, and Cass.” I point to the next row up. “That’s mom and Buck, then above them is—”
“You mean Dad,” Denny says, and I trap the tip of my tongue between my teeth, biting down until it goes numb, a coping trick I picked up a long time ago and the reason why I still can’t taste some things until they reach the back of my throat.
“Right,” I repeat slowly. “Dad.”
I don’t remember when I started calling my father Buck, but it’s the only way I can stomach referring to him now. It just makes it easier. “Buck” sounds like a mangy dog or a farm animal too lazy or stupid to find his way home, not like a grown man who walked out on his twenty-two-year-old wife and two kids and never looked back.
Denny, who came later, isn’t Buck’s son, but for the sake of simplicity we all just pretend he is. I mean, we don’t lie to Denny—he knows his absent father was different from ours—but it’s just easier for everyone to sort of merge them into one deadbeat-dad amalgam. No one except my mom knows who Denny’s biological father is, and I would bet money that even she’s not 100 percent sure. She was hanging out with a couple of guys around that time, bleary-eyed dudes reeking of skunky cologne she would introduce as “Uncle Trey,” or “Cousin Freddy,” even though we were old enough by then to know they weren’t relatives. I went out of my way not to see them. At the sound of her key in the door, I would drag Cass up the tacky carpeted steps to our room, and we’d play Barbies or Legos and I’d turn on the radio to drown out the voices and clinking bottles downstairs.
But there’s no box for “possible fathers” on Denny’s worksheet, and our family history is too R-rated to fully explain to a six-year-old.
“You know, maybe we should do something else,” I say, but Denny’s already hard at work, a pencil clutched in his little fist, moving slowly across the already-crinkled page on his lap. He proudly holds up the tree, on which he’s written mom, dad, michel [sic], cass, max, and denny (with one backward N) in crooked capitals. (Max does not exist. Max is Denny’s imaginary friend. He surfaced about seven months ago, when mom lost her latest job, showing up sporadically when Denny gets scared, and we can’t seem to make him leave, no matter how hard we try. Max is—there’s no nice way to put this—kind of a dick.)
“Nice work,” I say. “I think your teacher wants full names, though. Here, how ’bout I write them down and you can copy them in.”
Denny yawns and passes the paper back to me, letting his head drop against my chest. I glance up at the wall clock and catch Officer Tight Hair giving me a look again. Does she think Denny is my son, that I am some kind of preteen mom, too young and sad to even get my own show on MTV? I guess I can’t blame her; it feels like that sometimes. Lately, all the time.
Madison Means Devereaux, I write on the back of the photocopy, trying to make my loose, loopy handwriting clear enough for Denny to read. My mother, Maddie Means, was neither mad nor mean before Buck Devereaux came along. They met in junior high, when Buck transferred schools after his own dad ran out on him (foreshadowing alert!), leaving his mom high and dry and unable to afford the nice suburban neighborhood she had been accustomed to living in. Mom sang in the choir back then, got straight As, and dreamed of going to Juilliard like Nina Simone. She was a pastor’s daughter with a dangerous, dormant rebellious streak just waiting for the right trigger.
Speaking of which: Allen Buckner Devereaux III, I write, wanting to roll my eyes hard at the difference between Buck’s aristocratic-sounding name and the man himself, a handsome but aimless dropout grifter who couldn’t hold a job or, based on the photos I’ve seen, keep a shirt on for longer than a church service. Right after he left, during her saddest moments, when she would crawl into my bed and curl around me, her sharp, sweet booze breath hot on my neck, Mom used to say that from the day they met it was true love. “I looked in those clear green eyes and saw my future,” she’d whisper, hoarse from crying. I have those same green eyes. People always comment on them, so striking against my coppery skin. But I look in the mirror every day, and I can’t see any future hiding behind my irises. All I can see in my father’s eyes is the past.
Michelle Hope Devereux. I was conceived the same month my mother turned sixteen, which helps to explain why I’m named after Michelle Kwan, who skated her way to Olympic silver that winter while I was doing somersaults under Mom’s school uniform. There was a party in the basement of my grandfather’s church—Mom has a whole photo album devoted to it—with pink balloons and streamers, lemonade in plastic cups, and a big sheet cake with yellow buttercream frosting and pink letters spelling out Sweet 16 Maddie Means. In the pictures, Mom is wearing an orange silk dress with a matching short-sleeved jacket, smiling a coy, closed-lip smile as she poses with her parents and my aunt Sam and an endless parade of friends and relatives who have since cut all ties. Buck and his mother are there, too, loitering awkwardly in the background, beige from head to toe among a sea of black parishioners in their most festive jewel tones. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a photo of Buck wearing a tie. I wonder if they knew about me yet. I wonder if he was already plotting his escape.
I pause and look down at Denny, whose eyes are fluttering closed against my collarbone, his breath slowing into little waves punctuated by open-mouthed sighs. It’s amazing how quickly kids can rebound; he was sobbing all the way to the station, asking me a million times where Mom was and where we were going. I tried to keep calm and reassure him without really answering any of his questions—I’ll do anything to protect Denny’s innocence, since he’s the only one of us who’s got any; he doesn’t remember the first two times Mom got arrested because he wasn’t born yet. Cass and I, on the other hand, we know the drill. We don’t cry anymore. We just shut off.
This time, though, I know it’s bad. They can’t reach Aunt Sam—I’ve overheard two different officers leave her voicemails—and the next call they make will be to Child Protective Services. That’s just what happens when you’ve got a junkie mother, a deadbeat dad, a missing aunt, and no other known living relatives. I swallow hard and put pencil to paper again, to keep the panic at bay.
Reverend Jeremiah Means and Cynthia Smith Means. After I was born, Grandma and Grandpa let Mom stay in the house to raise me, and they paid for all our food and clothes. But they also made it clear that Buck wasn’t welcome in their home unless he came on bended knee with a ring, so depending on whom you ask, he either started taking odd jobs or grifting, going around charming people into giving him goods and services he had no intention of paying for, although Mom swears that didn’t start until later, when they got really broke. It took him two years, but by the time Mom turned eighteen, the ring—a square quarter carat set in a thin gold band engraved with the letters BM, which is appropriate given how quickly things went down the toilet—finally showed up. By all accounts my grandparents were horrified that their bluff had been called, but they gave their blessings anyway. Two months after the ceremony, which Grandpa officiated in the sparse backyard under a near-dead crabapple tree, they got on a church bus headed to a conference in Philadelphia. It was barreling down the highway at sixty-five miles an hour when the front tire blew and the driver lost control, flipped over the median, and hit a tractor-trailer. Everyone on board was killed instantly.
Allen Buckner Devereaux Jr. and Polly Devereaux. These two have been AWOL since 1994 and 2000, respectively. They just peaced out. I have no idea if the elder ABD is still alive. Last my mom can recall, Polly moved someplace in the Midwest when Buck decided to go through with the wedding. Apparently she’d been trying to convince Buck to go with her, even saying she’d buy him a new car if he walked away from us, but Buck was young and in love, and besides, he was obsessed with “Goldie,” the rusty, Band Aid–colored 1973 Datsun station wagon he’d inherited from his deadbeat dad. Incidentally, Polly never met me, but we still drive Goldie. In fact, she’s sitting outside right now in the Baltimore Police Department parking lot after having been routinely searched for narcotics. It’s like that “Circle of Life” song from The Lion King, only way more depressing.
“Shut uuuuupppp,” Cass groans, and for a split second I think I must be so fried that I’m saying all this out loud. But then one arm slips down from her face and dangles over the side of the bench, and I can see she’s still out cold. Must be dreaming. Something’s been bothering her for weeks, and I don’t think it has anything to do with Mom’s relapse. But every time I’ve tried to ask her about it, she shuts down. She was always a shy kid—neighbors used to joke they couldn’t tell what she looked like since she was permanently plastered to the backs of Mom’s knees—but now that she’s thirteen, her natural quietness has turned into something more troubling. She’s grown cold, even to me. Looking at her face these days, which is still the spitting image of Mom’s, and cruelly beautiful despite the onset of puberty, is like watching a storm roll in from a distance while the sun still shines on you, wondering what it’s like on the other side.
Cassidy Devereaux. Cass doesn’t have a middle name, presumably because all hope had been abandoned by the time she came along when I was four. Mom and Buck were okay for a while, but after Mom’s parents died, I think they realized how screwed they were, with a toddler, an old house to maintain, and only one (unreliable) source of income. According to Aunt Sam, that’s when the dealing started in earnest. I’m not sure how much I should believe of what she tells me, since she’s always resented the fact that Grandma and Grandpa left the house to their younger, helpless, irresponsible child when Sam had been busting her ass to put herself through nursing school plus managed to avoid a teen pregnancy. But Mom never had a real job until Buck left, so I have to wonder how they made ends meet for so long. And every time I smell pot in the parking lot at school, or on the late-night customers at the Taco Bell where I work, it’s immediately comforting. I guess it must smell like home.
Cass wasn’t an accident like me, but she didn’t help to save a marriage that was already falling apart. My earliest memories are a collage of conflicting arguments: driving around with my parents singing along to the radio and dancing in their seats at red lights; watching TV with Buck while Mom cries loudly in an adjacent room; licking an ice cream cone at a petting zoo while Mom and Buck giggle and kiss above me; getting tugged in and out of my car seat while they scream at each other. They must have been on one of their highs when they decided to have my sister, not knowing she would come six weeks early on the day after Christmas, stretching their bare-bones insurance to its limit with a stay in the NICU, and sick again by the time she was five months old, underweight and shaking all the time, requiring daily insulin injections that would eventually put them in a debt they would never recover from.
Oh, shit, her insulin. I reach across Denny and pinch Cass’s skinny calf through her jeans. “Cass,” I say. “Cass, wake up. You need your shot.”
She starts and squints at me, sleepy and confused, then looks around and slowly drags herself to a sitting position. Without a word, she unzips the front pocket of her backpack and takes out a Ziploc baggie full of needles and little glass bottles as well as a small foil pack of Wheat Thins. She rips open the crackers with her teeth and pops one into her mouth, then starts to roll up her shirt; Cass is so wiry that her stomach is the only place with enough padding so the shots don’t hurt.
“Hey,” cries Tight Hair, leaping to her feet. “Stop right there.” She turns and yells, “Backup!” and the two arresting officers, one young and barrel-chested, one graying with a potbelly that thunders ahead of him by a good twelve inches, come running down the hall with their hands on their guns. Denny’s hand on my waist turns into a viselike claw.
“She’s got needles,” Tight Hair says. Cass’s mahogany eyes grow wide and scared.
“It’s insulin,” I snap, knowing I should watch my tone but unable to mask my anger. Protecting Cass has been my job since she was born. “She’s diabetic.”
“Lemme see,” the young cop says, softening his stance. Cass hands him the baggie, and he examines the contents for a long moment. “You got a prescription?” he asks.
With trembling hands, Cass reaches into her backpack again and produces a silver MedicAlert bracelet engraved with her name and condition. She hasn’t worn it since she was eight, but at Mom’s insistence she always keeps it in her bag. This realization sends even sharper stabs of anger shooting through my veins. Mom was doing so much better. This wasn’t supposed to happen again. She swore it wouldn’t.
“Okay,” the cop says to Cass, attempting a goofy “oops, my bad!” smile. “But you can’t do that out here. Come with me, and I’ll take you to the ladies’ room.”
Cass looks at me as if for permission, and I nod. Reluctantly, she follows the officers back down the hall, slouching into her big sweatshirt like it’s an invisibility cloak.
“See, she’s okay,” I whisper into the top of Denny’s head. “Everything’s okay.” I squeeze again, three times. Lie, lie, lie.
“Where’s Mom?” he whimpers. “I wanna see Mom.”
“Mom . . . has to stay here for the night,” I say. “But Aunt Sam is going to pick us up, and we’ll have a sleepover at her house.” I say “sleepover” like we’ll be sleeping on lumpy blankets on the living room floor by choice, as some kind of fun adventure that’ll end in ghost stories and s’mores.
“I hate Aunt Sam’s,” Denny says quietly.
“I know, meatball. It won’t be for long this time.”
“Max says it will.”
Of course he does. Max’s contribution to any conversation is usually pessimistic. “Well,” I sigh, “tell Max he doesn’t know what I know.” Turning over the paper where I’ve been listing the names, I write Dennis Devereux inside the heart at the center of the tree. “See?” I say. “You’re safe in there.” But Denny looks unsure; even little kids know bullshit when they smell it.
“What if Aunt Sam doesn’t come?” he asks.
“She’s coming,” I say.
“Soon,” I whisper, raising my eyes to the ceiling, repeating it like a prayer even though it’s been years and way too many sins since I’ve seen the inside of a church. “She’s coming soon.”
• • •
An hour later our aunt is still AWOL, but we do have some surprise visitors: a dozen crazy drunk bachelor partiers who tried to sneak out on their tab at Scores. They’re so loud and sloppy while the officers try to deal with them that Tight Hair sourly ushers the three of us into a nearby break room so that we don’t get trampled or scarred for life hearing all the shouting about some stripper named Nico and the unusual locations of her body piercings. Cass and Denny both brighten when they see the vending machines, so I give them each $3 to buy whatever they want, and as we cluster around a small table eating our snacks and sharing a can of Sprite with a straw pushed through the tab, for a minute things start to feel okay. Normal, even.
“When’s your tree thing due, Denny?” I ask between handfuls of carefully curated Skittles combinations.
“I dunno,” he shrugs, licking Doritos dust off his thumb.
“Just tell them our family tree burned down,” Cass says with a wry smile. “Deforestation.”
“She’s kidding,” I say, but Denny’s already forgotten.
“If we stay here all night, can we stay home from school tomorrow?” he asks hopefully.
“We’re not staying all night,” I say.
“Maybe we are,” Cass mumbles.
“Well, even if we do . . .” I don’t know how to explain to them that no one’s just going to drop us off at our doorstep like we’ve been on some kind of extra-credit field trip, that we might not get to live in our house or sleep in our beds again for weeks or even months. We might end up with Aunt Sam, or we might get sent to foster care (Don’t let them split you up!: the last thing Mom yelled as the potbellied cop pushed her head down into the back of the cruiser), but no matter what happens, the one thing we can depend on is that someone will make us keep going to school. I realize Cass and Denny are staring at me, waiting for me to finish, so I just shake my head. “We can’t get out of school,” I say. “I mean, who’s going to write our absence notes?”
“Mom can! She was there!” Denny says brightly, starting in on a Three Musketeers bar, and without warning tears spring to my eyes. His trust breaks my heart.
The thing is, Denny doesn’t really have a reason not to trust Mom. He forced her to get her shit together—at least as much as shit like hers can be contained (I see it like, most people trip and fall every once in a while, but Mom walked off a cliff when she met Buck and has been falling ever since without realizing it, like one of those Roadrunner cartoons where for a second the dumbass coyote thinks he’s just walking on air). The years right before Denny were some of her lowest. She had a string of failed part-time jobs that introduced Cass and me to a rotating roster of strange and wet-eyed babysitters—mostly friends Mom made at the bar—who would use up all our Hi-C making mixed drinks and then either fall asleep on the couch or yell at someone on the phone. She got on unemployment for a while and seemed more stable, but then came her back-to-back arrests for shoplifting and drunk driving, and Aunt Sam moved in with us for a few months. I wish I could say those months were better, but Sam’s basically just a mean drunk without the drunk part. As Mom likes to say, she’s got a big ol’ bug up her ass about us living in “her” house. It’s to Mom’s credit that even when she was using, she never took my aunt up on her offers to buy the house back, because I don’t even want to think about what she could have done to herself with that kind of cash.
“Michelle, you can do Mom’s writing, right?” Cass asks. Apparently the conversation’s been going on without me, and now the two of them are plotting.
“I’m not doing that,” I say flatly. The last thing I need is to be worrying about what those two are doing all day by themselves; school hours—when I can forget about my family for a while, replacing them with Spanish verb conjugations and pointless, empty conversations with the friends I never invite home—are the only times the anxious static subsides.
Cass glowers at me. “You don’t even care because you’re almost done,” she says. “In two months you’ll never have to go to school again.” She crumples up her Fritos bag and crushes it into the tabletop with her palm. “Lucky bitch.”
“Hey!” I cry. “Watch it.”
Cass rolls her eyes dramatically. “Like Denny’s never heard a curse. Doesn’t he have Tourette’s or something?”
Denny grins, his teeth smeared with chocolate. “Poopy pants!” he cries. It’s true that Denny’s teachers have complained about him disrupting class, but his outbursts tend to be pretty G-rated. Pee-pee, butt, stupid head, poop: your average first grader’s nuggets of comedy gold. I’m not saying it’s great or anything, but he’s not exactly calling someone a stank-ass ho.
“No,” I say sharply. “He’s fine. And I’m not—” Lucky, I want to say. I’m not lucky. But instead I say, “I’m not letting you guys cut school.”
Cass shrugs and sits back in her chair, but she’s chewing furiously on her lower lip—her giveaway since age two that she’s trying not to cry.
“Sorry,” I mutter.
“Poop, poop, poop,” Denny laughs, which are my thoughts exactly. And then there’s a knock on the glass behind us.
I turn around to see a short, middle-aged woman with a gray pixie cut and a navy pantsuit standing in the doorway. She’s clutching a slim, leather-covered notebook, a pen, and a digital recorder, and she’s smiling in that overcompensating way that doctors smile at little kids before giving them a shot. I don’t have to look at the ID clipped to her blouse to know she’s from Child Protective Services. I stand up, instinctively trying to block Cass and Denny from seeing her, from understanding what she’s here for.
“Hi,” she says in a condescending, honeyed voice. “Are you Michelle?”
“Our aunt is coming,” I blurt in a panic. “She’s probably almost here.”
They’ll try to split you up.
The lady nods even more condescendingly and says, “My name is Janet. I just need to talk to you for a few minutes. May I sit down?”
I want to say no, to take her fancy notebook, hurl it down the hallway, throw both siblings over one shoulder like I’m Schwarzenegger in Commando (Buck’s favorite movie, left behind on DVD, and the only thing we have in common besides our eye color), and run until my legs give out. But I know I have no recourse; we’re a bunch of unaccompanied minors in a police station in the middle of the night. I step back and lower myself into my plastic bucket chair, folding my hands primly on the table as if somehow weaving my fingers together can contain this phenomenal mess we’re in. Cass looks Janet up and down without a word or even so much as a facial twitch. Denny, meanwhile, bounces rhythmically in his seat. I shouldn’t have let him have so much sugar all at once.
Janet pulls up a chair between Cass and me and sits with her legs crossed, placing her supplies in a neat row in front of her. She pushes a button on the recorder and then opens the notebook, licking her thumb to turn the pages. I hate that. Seriously, how hard is it to separate two flimsy pieces of paper without smearing your germy saliva all over the place?
“You guys must be tired,” she says with a sympathetic frown.
Cass and I say nothing, but Denny, who doesn’t know better, chirps, “I took a nap before, and then I had a candy bar.” He eyes her notebook. “Can I draw?” This kid will talk to anyone. It must be in his dad’s genes, because Cass and I are like Mom, immediately suspicious of strangers until proven otherwise—and maybe even then.
“Sure,” Janet says, neatly tearing out a sheet. “I even have an extra pen.” She hands Denny one of those thick ones with the four different ink colors that you can change by pushing down the buttons, and Denny beams. I bet she uses that pen exclusively to charm small children.
“So,” Janet continues, looking back and forth between the three of us, probably searching for physical signs of abuse she can put in her bullshit report, “I just have a few questions to ask so we can get you out of here as soon as possible.” She smiles at Denny. “I’ll start with an easy one: How old are you?”
“I’m six,” Denny says proudly.
“Thirteen,” Cass mutters, barely audible.
“Seventeen,” I say, then quickly add, “But I’ll be eighteen in July.”
Janet raises her eyebrows and writes something down. “Okay,” she says. “And you live with your mother, correct?”
“Yes,” I say quickly. I don’t want my sister and brother to say another word to this woman. I feel familiar tingles climbing up my neck. Ever since I was little I’ve had episodes—not attacks, exactly, more like tidal waves that I drown in for just a few seconds at a time. It’s like I get paralyzed, only it’s my brain that shuts down, not my body; my anxiety reaches some max-fill line and overrides the system. I close my eyes and focus on my heart beating, reminding myself that I’m still alive. When I open them again, Cass is being her usual stone-cold self, staring off at a wall poster outlining the steps of the Heimlich maneuver, and Denny is immersed in coloring in the legs on a dinosaur.
“There’s no other adult in the home?” Janet asks, not looking up from her notebook.
“No.” I splay my fingers out on the tabletop, feeling my weight pressing into the scratched black vinyl, trying to root myself like a tree without soil.
“Is the other biological parent deceased?”
I wish. “No.”
“And does your mother have a boyfriend or significant other?”
“Any living grandparents?”
“Not that I know of.”
“But you do have an aunt.”
“Yeah, my mom’s sister.”
Janet licks her thumb again and flips back a few pages, looking for something. “That would be . . . Samara Means?”
“And she lives locally?”
Scribble, scribble, scribble.
“Any other aunts or uncles?”
“And you’re all in school full-time?”
“Do you depend on your mother to take you to school?”
“No, she takes the bus and I drive us.”
Janet frowns, sending a web of lines running down the sides of her mouth and off of her cheeks like tributaries from a river. “You know,” she says, “it’s in violation of your provisional license to have other minors in the car without supervision.”
Shit. “I . . . um . . .” The truth is, I am familiar with that particular passage in Maryland’s DMV manual, but what else am I supposed to do? Mom works—well, worked, anyway—from seven thirty to six, and we all have to be at three different schools spanning six miles between seven forty-five and eight fifteen, and Denny gets out at two forty-five and then Cass at three ten, and I have to bring both of them to Taco Bell by four for my shift so they can do homework and eat the edible-but-messed-up-looking kitchen errors for free, so we’re all screwed unless I take a little creative license with the driving laws.
“Well, I’m sure you can find a suitable alternative for the next month,” Janet says with a thin smile.
“I’m sure,” I parrot hollowly.
“Would you say your family is . . . isolated?” she asks. I wonder how long this checklist is and whether she has some key at the end that’ll tell her where we fall on the spectrum between the Cosbys and the Mansons.
“No, we’re right here in the city, over in Berea.” Our house is one slightly busted-looking brick row house on a block of dozens. Like most of low-income Baltimore, our street has a few abandoned, boarded-up lots, places you have to stomp by after dark so the rats won’t dart out from under the rotting stairs and scare the bejesus out of you. But it’s not the boonies by any means.
“Of course,” Janet says, a little impatiently. “I mean, do you see friends, have people over?”
“Yes,” I say. But the truth is I haven’t brought a friend home in years, not since I was a kid. There was this one girl in particular I remember, named Excelyn, who was Mexican and had black braids down to her hips. She would come over after school, and we’d watch cartoons or play with Cass while she bounced in this little chair that hung in the kitchen doorway, and Mom would cut grilled cheese into long strips that she called monkey fingers. There was also a girl named Rosemarie who didn’t go to my school but was the daughter of one of my grandpa’s parishioners who tried to help Mom for a while after her parents passed. For some reason I don’t remember any identifying details about Rosemarie except that in the bathroom at her house, there was a clear, round liquid soap dispenser that matched the seasons. In December it would have a little Santa hat floating in it; in April, a nest of colored eggs; in July, an American flag. At the time, it seemed like an unfathomable luxury item, and later, when things got bad, I sometimes thought of that soap dispenser, convinced that if we were the kind of family who had one, it would have protected us somehow. Made everything perfect.
“So you have a social life outside the home?” Janet presses.
“Yeah,” I lie, trying to sound casual, like I don’t eat the same fast-food bean burrito for dinner every night in the cramped booth right by the men’s room exit, which is the least popular booth due to the pervasive urinal-cake stench, and therefore the only one my manager will let my latchkey siblings park themselves for hours on end.
Janet scribbles in her notebook and then looks up at me, fixing me once again with Meaningful Eye Contact. We’re so close I can see the contact lenses glistening on her slate-colored irises.
“Have any of you suffered physical abuse at the hands of your mother or another adult in the home?” She asks this in the same tone of voice that she used when she asked how old we were.
“No,” I say, forcing myself to keep calm for Denny’s benefit. I glance across the table at Cass and see in her face that she’s thinking the exact same thing I am: We could take her.
Janet furrows her brow sympathetically. “I know it’s a sensitive topic, but this is a standard question in cases where substance abuse is also present.” She thinks I’m lying, when for once I’m not. I bite down hard on my tongue.
Denny holds up the drawing he’s been working on, oblivious to the tension in the room. “Look!” he cries. “It’s a T. rex eating a Brachiosaurus!” Denny has worn out the red ink cartridge on Janet’s bribe pen making spurts of blood shooting out of every possible place on the dinosaur’s body, and she smiles at him before jotting something down in her notes. Great.
“No,” I say.
Janet nods. “Not even slapping, spanking, that sort of thing?”
I look over at Cass again. Of course Mom handled us rough sometimes when we were mouthing off or misbehaving, but we got it no worse than anyone else we knew. And if anything, the drugs made her seem kind of helpless. She was always much more likely to float through the house like a ghost or lock herself in her bedroom than take anything out on us. For better or worse, she took it all out on herself.
I briefly consider telling the truth but then decide that I’m not going to give this bitch the satisfaction. “Nope,” I say.
“But you can confirm that substance abuse is present in the home?” Janet looks at me expectantly, pen poised to write down what she thinks she already knows. And I get that she’s just doing her job, and that I probably should be grateful that she’s using words Denny can’t understand, but I still hate her. I hate her for taking the things that make us ache inside and putting them down on paper, which will turn into some typed report that will turn into a file in some computer database so that anyone can just punch in my name and read about the worst parts of my life anytime they feel like it. I hate her for doing it in front of Cass and Denny, and I hate her for the way she turns the pages in her shitty little notebook. But mostly I hate her for thinking she can crack me. I take a deep breath and meet her gaze.
“No,” I say calmly. “I’ve never seen her do anything.” It’s the truth, actually. I’ve never seen my mother use drugs. Have I found tiny plastic baggies in the bathroom garbage? Does the aluminum foil routinely go missing, only to reappear as charred little strips littering the ground below my mother’s bedroom window? Do I notice the heat blisters on her lips and nostrils that she tries to cover with makeup or pass off as cold sores? These are different questions, with different answers. But they’re not what Janet asked. If she wants to know if my mom is a drug addict, she can just march her smarmy pantsuited ass down to the evidence room and look at the eight dime bags of heroin the cops caught her with in the Shell station bathroom while we all sat in the car fifty feet away arguing over what movie to watch when we got home.
Janet narrows her eyes at me as if trying to read my face, and for a second I think she’s going to press me on it. But then she just writes something down, shuts her notebook, and turns off the recorder.
“All right,” she says, standing up. “Thank you. I’ll just speak to the officers, and hopefully we can get you out of here and into a shelter as soon as possible.”
“Wait, shelter?” Cass says, horrified, dropping the deaf-mute act for a minute. “What about Aunt Sam?” She looks at me, wild-eyed with fear, the spitting image of Mom for all the wrong reasons. “She’s coming, right?”
“Aunt Sam’s not coming?” Denny cries, his big dark eyes instantly brimming with tears.
The panic starts to rise again, and before the dizzying whoosh of blood from my racing heart threatens to render me speechless, I scramble to come up with something, anything, I can say to stall whatever’s coming next.
“She might not be coming right now,” I sputter, “but—”
“Oh, like hell I’m not coming,” my aunt says sharply from the doorway. I spin around to see her, looking tired and pissed off in her nurse’s scrubs and running shoes, like a slightly older, less pretty version of Mom from some alternate universe where time marched on in the boring way it’s supposed to. “I’m here, aren’t I?” She crosses her arms and looks us over one by one with some mix of pity and annoyance. “Dragged off my shift at two o’clock in the morning, left a man with a half-stapled knife wound, but here I am. And they told me I had to take a cab since she left you with that janky car, too. So you owe me $18.” With anyone else, this might be a deadpan joke, but Aunt Sam is serious. She doesn’t treat us like her own kids, mi-casa-es-su-casa style, or even like the nieces and nephews we are. When we stay at her house, we’re lodgers who earn our keep, and she tallies every nickel of what we cost her.
Janet flashes her elementary school art teacher smile at my aunt—good luck with that—and holds out her hand. “Mrs. Means,” she says, “it’s so nice to meet you.”
“I’m not a Mrs.,” Sam snaps. “Who are you?”
“I’m Janet Winters, with Maryland Child Protective Services, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that—”
Aunt Sam waves away the attempted handshake. “We don’t need you, sister, are you blind? I showed up, didn’t I? Now I have to get back to my job, so if you’ll excuse me . . .” She claps impatiently. “Come on, let’s go, get your stuff.”
I hold out my hand to Denny, and he grabs it with a sweaty palm, but not before stuffing his drawings back into his bag along with the four-color pen. (It’s probably not on purpose—he’s tired and overwhelmed—but in this family you never know.) Cass reluctantly peels herself out of her chair, gazing almost wistfully at the vending machines, knowing that where we’re headed won’t be nearly this good. Aunt Sam takes off like a race walker, and we rush to catch up, but as I’m stepping out into the hallway, Janet shoots me a look of real sympathy and presses a business card into my palm.
It’s not until I’m buckled into Goldie’s passenger seat, smelling her signature scent of old tacos and gasoline and looking out her milky windows at the sad, squat, salmon-colored building where we’ve been trapped for six hours, that I turn the card over in my hand. On the back, Janet has written:
Have you thought about seeking custody of C & D when you turn eighteen? Feel free to call me w/ any questions.
As Aunt Sam peels out of the parking lot, I toss it onto the floor, lean back, and close my eyes. I can’t think about that right now—not that I haven’t thought about it, agonized over it, since I was too young to even know what it was that I was feeling, that impulse to wake up my sleeping sister and run off into the night. I know what’s involved now: the lawyers, the documents, the character assassination of the only person who’s ever loved me, no matter how wrong-headedly that love has been expressed at times. But however I spin it, going after custody seems like a sudden-death game that all of us will lose. Because I know I have no future if I stay here. But what kind of future will I condemn my brother and sister to if I leave?
Monday Afternoon/Monday Night
“You pull an all-nighter or something?” my friend Noemi asks Monday, sliding into the seat next to mine in Mr. Medina’s AP physics class. She looks me over with a smirk, pursing her freshly glossed lips. “You look like an extra from The Walking Dead. But, you know, in a hot way.”
Normally her digs don’t really bother me—Noemi’s one of those people who thinks true friendship means “being real,” aka brutally honest, at all times, which is both annoying and guilt-inducing, considering how much I hide from her—but right now I can’t work up the energy to appreciate her level of realness.
“I didn’t get a chance to shower,” I say, flipping my notebook open. Inside the front cover are columns of handwritten math I spent the night doing and redoing, trying to end up with a number greater than zero. Later today Mom has a hearing to determine her bail, and usually the bondsman will take 10 percent and let you pay the rest on a plan. I have $200 saved, and I get paid again on Friday, but it will make things tight for a while. Well, more than tight, actually. Impossible.
“Okay, but a rubber band?” Noemi laughs, pointing to my DIY hair tie, courtesy of Aunt Sam’s junk drawer. “Girl, that’s worse than a scrunchie.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I received this book through First To Read in exchange for a honest review. Don't Fail Me Now is about 3 kids who are trying to find their way around in this life. When Michelle, the oldest of three kids, is at work one night and her long lost half-sister, Leah shows up with her stepbrother Tim and changes the course of Michelle and her siblings life forever. On the journey to find the girls long gone father who is in a hospice, the five kids take a road trip from Baltimore, MD to Los Angeles, CA without telling anyone and even with all the setbacks along the way, they discover family is all you really need! Thank You to Una LaMarche for writing a book that was hard to stop just because you had to find out what was gonna happen next!