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By Cara Sue Achterberg
Studio Digital CT, LLCCopyright © 2016 Cara Sue Achterberg
All rights reserved.
* * *
Waving to Jenna as she waits at the bus stop, all I can think is, Please let her go to school today and stay in school all day. Jenna is such a smart girl; I don't understand why she doesn't apply herself to her studies. She could be anything. A doctor, even. I was a nurse, but Jenna is smarter than me. Of course, that was twenty years ago. Before I married Everett. Before Jenna and JT were born. Before we ever lived in Pine Estates.
I was the one who chose the house. Everett thought it was pretentious, and it was. All the houses on our end of Pine Road were pretentious. But it was the nineties. Everyone was building McMansions and taking out ridiculous loans to pay for them. Everett had just left his job as a police officer for the job at FABSO (Family and Business Security Options).
We needed to start a new life. We celebrated the new job and didn't talk about the fact that things could have turned out very differently if his captain had chosen to bring charges against him. Instead, he recommended Everett for the job at FABSO and made it clear Everett would be wise to take it.
I remember lying in bed holding Everett the day he turned in his gun and his badge. He was devastated. Being a cop had been Everett's dream since childhood. "All I've ever wanted to be is a cop. If I can't be a cop, who am I?"
"You're a father and a husband. That's so much more," I told him. He didn't say anything about it again. He got to work. He made something of FABSO. And he's tried so hard to be a good dad.
I don't remember much about my own dad, and whenever I asked my mother she would say, "There's nothing to remember about that louse except that he was a louse." When I pressed her later, after I'd grown up, she'd said, "It doesn't matter now. He didn't want to be with us enough to stay."
All that bitterness can't hide the fact that when my father left, he apparently took my mother's heart. She's spent the rest of her life alone. Except for me. And Evelyn. Although, once Evelyn left home, she didn't come around much. These days she visits Mama on Saturdays, unless she has something more pressing to do, which is most weeks. Mama annoys her. I suppose I do too. We don't fit into Evelyn's shiny, perfect life.
When I first met Everett and told Mama about him, she was skeptical. "A cop?"
I told her how he'd wanted to be a cop since he was a little boy, the same way I always wanted to be a nurse. I gushed about how he told me I was beautiful and how he said he'd been certain about us the first time he saw me. Mama said, "Men will say whatever it takes, Kate. When will you realize that?" But I knew she was wrong about Everett.
I met Everett in the ER. I was treating a patient who was high on coke or meth or God knows what. He was lean and riddled with track marks, his strength coming from whatever drug was flooding his body. I didn't recognize him as one of our regulars — the ones who showed up like clockwork in search of pain meds. This guy was out of his mind and covered in his own blood from where he'd scratched his thin skin. Another nurse helped me attempt to strap him to the gurney with the Velcro holds, but he was out of his mind and reached for the needle I was about to use to sedate him. Everett was nearby at the desk filling out forms and heard me yell. In just moments, he wrestled the junkie to the ground and held him still as I plunged the needle in. When the man finally collapsed, Everett lifted him back onto the gurney and secured him.
When he turned and looked at me with his green eyes, the same eyes Jenna has, I knew I would marry him. I told him that on our second date. He laughed. I've always loved his laugh.
When Everett started at FABSO, he made nearly twice the salary he'd made as a cop. I didn't need to work any longer. It was our chance. I would stay home and take care of our happy family in our beautiful house in Pine Estates. It was our new start. I thought we belonged there.
When I open the door to Mama's house, she's already calling for me. She may be losing her mind, but her hearing hasn't deteriorated one bit.
"You're late!" she scolds.
"Sorry, JT had a hard time picking out a shirt to wear today."
"He's not a baby! I don't know why you put up with it."
I smile at her. No sense taking the bait. "You're right, Mama."
"You've always been so indecisive. I swear if I didn't tell you what to do next, you'd stand there like a statue."
"Good thing you're so good at telling me what to do," I mutter as I go to prepare her tea.
Mama wasn't always like this. When Evelyn and I were little, she was our whole world. She baked homemade cakes for our birthdays, and elaborately decorated them with whatever we were currently obsessing over — Tinker Bell, Barbies, guitars, or, for Evelyn, a computer one year, and the scales of justice the year she announced she was going to be a judge when she grew up.
Mama read to us every night. I remember snuggling into the crook of her arm, even when I was too old to be doing it. Evelyn would be on her other side and our hands would meet on Mama's flat tummy. I loved the stories with a happy ending, but Evelyn demanded that she read "real books." She wanted mysteries and thrillers instead of the children's books Mama picked out at the library. So Mama began to read Nancy Drew, but Evelyn went to the adult aisle and picked out John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King. Mama tried to read them to us. She'd come to a part that she felt was too racy for us and she'd hum while she skimmed ahead til she found a more appropriate section before beginning to read again. This drove Evelyn nuts. She'd pout and complain, eventually stomping off. Mama would return the books to the library unread, but it wasn't long before Evelyn was old enough to have her own library card and checked them out for herself.
In the mornings, Mama would braid our hair, pack our lunches with tiny handwritten notes, and walk us to the bus stop for more years than was appropriate. When Evelyn reached high school, she demanded that Mama stop, but she still followed us with her car and waited to be certain we got on the bus safely.
Now that I'm a mom, I know it couldn't have been easy raising us alone. As she's gotten older, she's gotten difficult. But I put up with her increasing number of quirks because I feel I owe her. Evelyn doesn't see it that way, but then again Evelyn doesn't feel she owes anybody anything.
"Here you go." I hand Mama the bitter Earl Grey tea she likes over-steeped with no sweetener.
"I've already missed Phillip," she says as I help her out the door to the back porch. She spends most mornings there, talking to the birds that frequent her multiple bird feeders.
"Who's Phillip?" I ask, mostly to make conversation. She loves to talk about the birds.
The look she gives me is just like the one JT gives me when my random "Wow" comes at the wrong time in one of his lengthy soliloquies on his current obsession. "Phillip is the male cardinal who has begun stopping by each morning. He comes over the fence from the southeast. He's usually here before the chickadees move in and take over the birdbath."
I look at the crowd of birds fighting over the seed at the feeder. They all look the same to me. "I've got to take care of a few things at home after I run JT to school; I'll be back at lunchtime."
"Always leaving me!" she complains. "You can't even spend five minutes with your mother."
I'd protest, but there's no point. She sees things the way she needs to see them. Rewriting history is one of her specialties. I've been listening to her do it all my life. When Everett and I took the kids to the beach last summer, she said, "Must be nice! I've never had a vacation." Yet, I remember several summers when Mama took Evelyn and me to the same beach we were headed to. Or when I graduated from nursing school, Mama said, "I've always said you'd make a fine nurse," when, in reality, she'd been telling me for years that I could never be a nurse because I was so weak at chemistry. She thought I should have considered something in business — like being a secretary. She's been spinning her stories of Evelyn's escapades, my mistakes, and my father's general louselikeness for so long, she probably believes them as gospel truth. They are, I suppose, at least to her mind.
I hurry home, hoping JT has finally decided on a shirt for school. We're going to be late if we have to argue about it.CHAPTER 2
* * *
I wave to Mom as she drives past on her way to Gram's house. I don't know why she drives. It's a perfectly nice day and Gram only lives a couple blocks up the street. She lives in the old part, where the houses are pretty much all one-story brick numbers with window boxes full of plastic flowers. Old people live there. Or young people without much money.
Our end of the street is for the rich people, not that we're rich people. We just pretend to be. Everett — my dad — makes decent money, I'm pretty sure, but nothing like the money Mr. Braddington pulls in. I should know. I spend plenty of time in the Braddingtons' house. And today, that's where I'll go just as soon as my mom's car is out of sight, but before the bus pulls up to take me to school.
I don't see the point of school. Bunch of idiots there. And not just the students; the teachers aren't such a bright bunch either. It's a waste of my time. I'm sure I'll catch hell for it from Everett, but I can't stomach the jerks today. I grab my backpack and double-time it to the Braddingtons' house.
I know it's empty. On a day like today, Mrs. Braddington will be on the golf course teeing off. Wells and Tiffany will have already left in Wells' fancy corvette, headed to school. I don't know why they go to the public school. I'm sure the Braddingtons could afford the Country Day School. Wells is a junior, like me. He's a big deal on the football team. And a state-ranked wrestler. Plus, he runs track. The guy is your all-American dream, if that's what you're into.
Tiffany is a freshman. She made waves when she started at Cramer High. Everyone knows she modeled for J.Crew as a kid. She's cardboard pretty and already hangs with the mean girls in my grade. I guess she's too good to be an actual freshman.
I've seen the pictures of Tiffany in the J.Crew catalogs. They're blown up poster-size and plastered all over the Braddingtons' house. There are pictures of Wells, also. In most pictures, he's holding a trophy. He's always been beautiful, too. That's how I think of all of them — the Beautiful Braddingtons. Alliteration, see? I wasn't snoozing through English class last week.
The Braddingtons have an alarm system, but it's easy to get around. The control box for the alarm system is in the garage, which has a cat door for their overly obese cat. They've had to enlarge it twice. The cat happened into the right family. It's diabetic and Mrs. Braddington gives it shots every day. I've seen the meds and the instructions on the counter.
Getting into the Braddingtons' is easy as pie. I'm small enough to get through the cat door. I found their security code the first time I stopped in, but even if I hadn't, I could easily disarm their system since the box is right there next to the door. I could simply pull the wires to the phone and power. I don't need either.
I learned how to disarm home systems from following Everett around on his job when I was little. He works for a security company. He's even made geeky YouTube videos. In one of them, he dresses up like a repair guy and shows a customer how a burglar could easily break into his house. He overacts ridiculously, as if he's some Hollywood star. They still use that video on cable channel advertising. Embarrassing for all of us, but Everett actually watches it pretty much every time it airs.
Today at the Braddingtons' house, I fix a big bowl of ice cream — Peanut Butter Swirl — and take it to the window seat that looks out over the backyard, which includes a fancy outdoor kitchen, a pool shaped like a tennis racket with a hot tub on the handle (you can swim between the two!), and a golf tee with an enormous backstop. The Braddingtons also have the biggest bird feeder I've ever seen. It looks like an old-fashioned hotel with a tin roof and dozens of balconies where the feed comes out. A neon sign on the top of it says, "Fly Right Inn" and holds the extra bird food that automatically refills the feeder whenever it gets low. My gram would probably kill to have a feeder like that. I've thought about stealing it for her, but then the Bs would figure out someone's been here.
Gram is crazy about birds. As in, she's so crazy she thinks she can talk to birds and they talk to her. I like to mess with my mom sometimes and say shit like, "Maybe she can talk to birds. How would we know — we don't speak bird."
"That's ridiculous, Jenna. No one talks to birds."
"Sure they do. People talk to birds all the time." Which is true, right?
"Your grandmother is getting old. She's confused. She cannot communicate with birds."
"I just think we aren't experts. It's possible. People talk to dolphins all the time."
"It's not the same."
"Sure it is."
"It doesn't help your gram to encourage it. She's struggling to keep her mind sound as she ages."
This is Mom's way of saying Gram is going nuts. Mom should know since she spends every day over there taking care of her. If anyone's crazy, it's Mom. She has no life because she has to be there to feed Gram all her meals and clean every possible speck that ever lands in her house, or Gram will start yelling about the mess. She's better off outside talking to the birds. Her yard has a ten-foot privacy fence, about fifteen bird feeders (that Mom fills EVERY day), and four birdbaths. If I were Mom, I'd park Gram out there first thing in the morning and come back after dark to roll her back inside.
I finish up my ice cream and take my English book to the chaise lounge in the sunroom. That's my favorite room in the house. Before I go, I'll wash my dishes and put everything back the way it was, reset the alarm, and slip back out the cat door. Maybe today I'll visit the seven dwarfs over at Ms. Cassie's place.CHAPTER 3
* * *
I've just finished cleaning up Mama's lunch dishes and settled her down for a nap when Everett calls.
"You need to get over to the Braddingtons' house."
"What? Why?" I ask. Susan Braddington and I aren't really friends. They live across the street, but I've only been in their house once. Back when we first moved in, I tried in vain to get to know Susan. The Braddingtons are the only family with children on our end of the street. Our kids are nearly the same ages and, when we moved in, I imagined us becoming best friends, sharing mornings at the bus stop and afternoons at the Braddingtons' pool.
Susan has always been pleasant enough, politely refusing every invitation I made. Sometimes I wonder if it's because of JT. The one and only time I've been in their house was the day JT got upset about something I can't even recall. He was probably about four. He'd run blindly across the road and up their driveway. I'd chased after him, but he was fast. Finally, he tripped over the low stone wall that banks their driveway. His knee was bleeding. It wasn't a big deal, not really, but Susan Braddington heard him crying and came out to help. She invited us in to wash the cut, but when she approached JT with a can of first aid spray, he began shrieking and kicked a dent in their drywall. I tried to explain, but it was impossible over JT's screaming, so I picked him up and carried him home.
I sent Everett over to offer to repair the drywall, but Susan insisted there was no need. Since then, the Braddingtons always wave whenever we see each other, but they never stop, never chat. Why in heaven's name was Everett insisting I had to go there now?
"I don't know, but Jenna is there and so are the police!"
"Oh my God!" I drop Mama's soup bowl in the sink with a clatter. So much for Jenna going to school and staying there.
"What is it?" screeches Mama.
"I'm trying to reach one of my buddies at the department to figure out what she did and what can be done," says Everett.
"Katie! What happened? Don't ignore me!"
"I'll go there, now," I tell him.
I grab my purse and tell Mama, "It's nothing. Take your nap. I'll be back in time for dinner." I can hear her calling to me as I race out the door.
As I drive to the Braddingtons' house, I try to apply some lipstick, glancing in the rearview mirror. My hair looks terrible, yanked into a haphazard bun this morning while arguing with JT about his shirt. It'd taken nearly the whole morning to get him dressed and then over to the school. He'd insisted I walk him in, even though that was one of the skills the teachers wanted him to master by now — walking into the building by himself.
He'd refused to even get out of the car alone.
Excerpted from Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg. Copyright © 2016 Cara Sue Achterberg. Excerpted by permission of Studio Digital CT, LLC.
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