With bonus Jase and Samantha content in the paperback!
Tim Mason was The Boy Most Likely To find the liquor cabinet blindfolded, need a liver transplant, and drive his car into a house
Alice Garrett was The Girl Most Likely To . . . well, not date her little brother’s baggage-burdened best friend, for starters.
For Tim, it wouldn’t be smart to fall for Alice. For Alice, nothing could be scarier than falling for Tim. But Tim has never been known for making the smart choice, and Alice is starting to wonder if the “smart” choice is always the right one. When these two crash into each other, they crash hard.
Told in Tim’s and Alice’s distinctive, disarming, entirely compelling voices, this novel is for readers of The Spectacular Now, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Paper Towns.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’ve been summoned to see the Nowhere Man.
He’s at his desk when I step inside the gray cave of his office, his back turned.
He holds up his hand, keeps scribbling on a blue-lined pad.
Standard operating procedure.
I flick my eyes around the room: the mantel, the carpet, the bookshelves, the window; try to find a comfortable place to land.
Ma’s fond of “cute”—teddy bears in seasonal outfits and pillows with little sayings and shit she gets on QVC. They’re everywhere. Except here, a room spliced out of John Grisham, all leather-bound, only muted light through the shades. August heat outdoors, but no hint of that allowed here. I face the rear of Pop’s neck, hunch further into the gray, granite-hard sofa, rub my eyes, sink back on my elbows.
On his desk, three pictures of Nan, my twin, at various ages—poofy red curls, missing teeth, then baring them in braces. Always worried eyes. Two more of her on the wall, straightened hair, expensive white smile, plus a framed newspaper clipping of her after delivering a speech at this summer’s Stony Bay Fourth of July thing.
No pics of me.
Were there ever? Can’t remember. In the bad old days, I always got high before a father/son office visit.
Clear my throat.
Crack my knuckles.
“Pop? You asked to see me?”
He actually startles. “Tim?”
Swiveling the chair, he looks at me. His eyes, like Nan’s and my own, are gray. Match his hair. Match his office.
“So,” he says.
I wait. Try not to scope out the bottle of Macallan on the . . . what do you call it. Sidebar? Sideboard? Generally, Ma brings in the ice in the little silver bucket thing ten minutes after he gets home from work, six p.m., synched up like those weird-ass cuckoo clock people who pop out of their tiny wooden doors, dead on schedule when the clock strikes, so Pop can have the first of his two scotches ready to go.
Today must be special. It’s only three o’clock and there’s the bucket, oozing cool sweat like I am. Even when I was little, I knew he’d leave the second drink half-finished. So I could slurp down the last of the scotchy ice water without him knowing while he was washing his hands before dinner. Can’t remember when I started doing that, but it was well before my balls dropped.
“Ma said you wanted to talk.”
He brushes some invisible whatever from his knee, like his attention’s already gone. “Did she say why?”
I clear my throat again. “Because I’m moving out? Planning to do that. Today.” Ten minutes ago, ideally.
His eyes return to mine. “Do you think this is the best choice for you?”
Classic Nowhere Man. Moving out was hardly my choice. His ultimatum, in fact. The only “best choice” I’ve made lately was to stop drinking. Etc.
But Pop likes to tack and turn, and no matter that this was his order, he can shove that rudder over without even looking and make me feel like shit.
“I asked you a question, Tim.”
“It’s fine. It’s a good idea.”
Pop steeples his fingers, sets his chin on them, my chin, cleft and all. “How long has it been since you got kicked out of Ellery Prep?”
“Uh. Eight months.” Early December. Hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase from Thanksgiving break.
“Since then you’ve had how many jobs?”
Maybe he doesn’t remember. I fudge it. “Um. Three.”
“Seven,” Pop corrects.
“How many of those were you fired from?”
“I still have the one at—”
He pivots in his chair, halfway back to his desk, frowns down at his cell phone. “How many?”
“Well, I quit the senator’s office, so really only five.”
Pop twists back around, lowers the phone, studies me over his reading glasses. “I’m very clear on the fact that you left that job. You say ‘only’ like it’s something to brag about. Fired from five out of seven jobs since February. Kicked out of three schools . . . Do you know that I’ve never been let go from a job in my life? Never gotten a bad performance review? A grade lower than a B? Neither has your sister.”
Right. Perfect old Nano. “My grades were always good,” I say. My eyes stray again to the Macallan. Need something to do with my hands. Rolling a joint would be good.
“Exactly,” Pop says. He jerks from the chair, nearly as angular and almost as tall as me, drops his glasses on the desk with a clatter, runs his hands quickly through his short hair, then focuses on scooping out ice and measuring scotch.
I catch a musky, iodine-y whiff of it, and man, it smells good.
“You’re not stupid, Tim. But you sure act that way.”
Yo-kay . . . He’s barely spoken to me all summer. Now he’s on my nuts? But I should try. I drag my eyes off the caramel-colored liquid in his glass and back to his face.
“Pop. Dad. I know I’m not the son you would have . . . special-ordered—”
“Would you like a drink?”
He sloshes more scotch into another glass, uncharacteristically careless, sets it out on the Columbia University coaster on the side table next to the couch, slides it toward me. He tips his own glass to his lips, then places it neatly on his coaster, almost completely chugged.
Well, this is fucked up.
“Uh, look.” My throat’s so tight, my voice comes out weird—husky, then high-pitched. “I haven’t had a drink or anything like that since the end of June, so that’s, uh, fifty-nine days, but who’s counting. I’m doing my best. And I’ll—”
Pop is scrutinizing the fish tank against the wall.
I’m boring him.
“And I’ll keep doin’ it . . .” I trail off.
There’s a long pause. During which I have no idea what he’s thinking. Only that my best friend is on his way over, and my Jetta in the driveway is seeming more and more like a getaway car.
“Four months,” Pop says in this, like, flat voice, like he’s reading it off a piece of paper. Since he’s turned back to look down at his desk, it’s possible.
“Um . . . yes . . . What?”
“I’m giving you four months from today to pull your life together. You’ll be eighteen in December. A man. After that, unless I see you acting like one—in every way—I’m cutting off your allowance, I’ll no longer pay your health and car insurance, and I’ll transfer your college fund into your sister’s.”
Not as though there was ever a welcome mat under me, but whatever the fuck was there has been yanked out and I’m slammed down hard on my ass.
Wait . . . what?
A man by December. Like, poof, snap, shazam. Like there’s some expiration date on . . . where I am now.
“But—” I start.
He checks his Seiko, hitting a button, maybe starting the countdown. “Today is August twenty-fourth. That gives you until just before Christmas.”
He holds up his hand, like he’s slapping the off button on my words. It’s ultimatum number two or nothing.
No clue what to say anyway, but it doesn’t matter, because the conversation is over.
We’re done here.
Unfold my legs, yank myself to my feet, and I head for the door on autopilot.
Can’t get out of the room fast enough.
For either of us, apparently.
Ho, ho, ho to you too, Pop.
“You’re really doing this?”
I’m shoving the last of my clothes into a cardboard box when my ma comes in, without knocking, because she never does. Risky as hell when you have a horny seventeen-year-old son. She hovers in the doorway, wearing a pink shirt and this denim skirt with—what are those? Crabs?—sewn all over it.
“Just following orders, Ma.” I cram flip-flops into the stuffed box, push down on them hard. “Pop’s wish is my command.”
She takes a step back like I’ve slapped her. I guess it’s my tone. I’ve been sober nearly two months, but I have yet to go cold turkey on assholicism. Ha.
“You had so much I never had, Timothy . . .”
Away we go.
“. . . private school, swimming lessons, tennis camp . . .”
Yep, I’m an alcoholic high school dropout, but check out my backhand!
She shakes out the wrinkles in a blue blazer, one quick motion, flapping it into the air with an abrasive crack. “What are you going to do—keep working at that hardware store? Going to those meetings?”
She says “hardware store” like “strip club” and “going to those meetings” like “making those sex tapes.”
“It’s a good job. And I need those meetings.”
Ma’s hands start smoothing my stack of folded clothes. Blue veins stand out on her freckled, pale arms. “I don’t see what strangers can do for you that your own family can’t.”
I open my mouth to say: “I know you don’t. That’s why I need the strangers.” Or: “Uncle Sean sure could have used those strangers.” But we don’t talk about that, or him.
I shove a pair of possibly too-small loafers in the box and go over to give her a hug.
She pats my back, quick and sharp, and pulls away.
“Cheer up, Ma. Nan’ll definitely get into Columbia. Only one of your children is a fuck-up.”
“Sorry. My bad. Cock-up.”
“That,” she says, “is even worse.”
My bedroom door flies open—again no knock.
“Some girl who sounds like she has laryngitis is on the phone for you, Tim,” Nan says, eyeing my packing job. “God, everything’s going to be all wrinkly.”
“I don’t care—” But she’s already dumped the cardboard box onto my bed.
“Where’s your suitcase?” She starts dividing stuff into piles. “The blue plaid one with your monogram?”
“I’ll check the basement,” Ma says, looking relieved to have a reason to head for the door. “This girl, Timothy? Should I bring you the phone?”
I can’t think of any girl I have a thing to say to. Except Alice Garrett. Who definitely would not be calling me.
“Tell her I’m not home.”
Nan’s folding things rapidly, piling up my shirts in order of style. I reach out to still her hands. “Forget it. Not important.”
She looks up. Shit, she’s crying.
We Masons cry easily. Curse of the Irish (one of ’em). I loop one elbow around her neck, thump her on the back a little too hard. She starts coughing, chokes, gives a weak laugh.
“You can come visit me, Nano. Any time you need to . . . escape . . . or whatever.”
“Please. It won’t be the same,” Nan says, then blows her nose on the hem of my shirt.
It won’t. No more staying up till nearly dawn, watching old Steve McQueen movies because I think he’s badass and Nan thinks he’s hot. No Twizzlers and Twix and shit appearing in my room like magic because Nan knows massive sugar infusions are the only sure cure for drug addiction.
“Lucky for you. No more covering my lame ass when I stay out all night, no more getting creative with excuses when I don’t show for something, no more me bumming money off you constantly.”
Now she’s wiping her eyes with my shirt. I haul it off, hand it to her. “Something to remember me by.”
She actually folds that, then stares at the neat little square, all sad-faced. “Sometimes it’s like I’m missing everyone I ever met. I actually even miss Daniel. I miss Samantha.”
“Daniel was a pompous prickface and a crap boyfriend. Samantha, your actual best friend, is ten blocks and ten minutes away—shorter if you text her.”
She blows that off, hunkers down, pulling knobbly knees to her chest and lowering her forehead so her hair sweeps forward to cover her blotchy face. Nan and I are both ginger, but she got all the freckles, everywhere, while mine are only across my nose. She looks up at me with that face she does, all pathetic and quivery. I hate that face. It always wins.
“You’ll be fine, Nan.” I tap my temple. “You’re just as smart as me. Much less messed up. At least as far as most people know.”
Nan twitches back. We lock eyes. The elephant in the room lies bleeding out on the floor between us. Then she looks away, gets busy picking up another T-shirt to fold expertly, like the only thing that matters in the world is for the sleeves to align.
“Not really,” she says in a subdued voice. Not taking the bait there either, I guess.
I grope around the quilt on my bed, locate my cigs, light one, and take a deep drag. I know it’s all kinds of bad for me, but God, how does anyone get through the day without smoking? Setting the smoldering butt down in the ashtray, I tap her on the back again, gently this time.
“Hey now. Don’t stress. You know Pop. He wants to add it up and get a positive bottom line. Job. High school diploma. College-bound. Check, check, check. It only has to look good. I can pull that off.”
Don’t know if this is cheering my sister up, but as I talk, the squirming fireball in my stomach cools and settles. Fake it. That I can do.
Mom pops her head into the room. “That Garrett boy’s here. Heavens, put on a shirt, Tim.” She digs in a bureau drawer and thrusts a Camp Wyoda T-shirt I thought I’d ditched years ago at me. Nan leaps up, knuckling away her tears, pulling at her own shirt, wiping her palms on her shorts. She has a zillion twitchy habits—biting her nails, twisting her hair, tapping her pencils. I could always get by on a fake ID, a calm face, and a smile. My sister could look guilty saying her prayers. Feet on the stairs, staccato knock on the door—the one person who knocks!—and Jase comes in, swipes back his damp hair with the heel of one hand.
“Shit, man. We haven’t even started loading and you’re already sweating?”
“Ran here,” he says, hands planted hard on his kneecaps. He glances up. “Hey, Nan.”
Nan, who has turned her back, gives a quick, jerky nod. When she twists around to tumble more neatly balled socks into my cardboard box, her eyes stray to Jase, up, slowly down. He’s the guy girls always look at twice.
“You ran here? It’s like five miles from your house! Are you nuts?”
“Three, and nah.” Jase braces his forearm against the wall, bending his leg, holding his ankle, stretching out. “Seriously out of shape after sitting around the store all summer. Even after three weeks of training camp, I’m nowhere near up to speed.”
“You don’t seem out of shape,” Nan says, then shakes her head so her hair slips forward over her face. “Don’t leave without telling me, Tim.” She scoots out the door.
“You set?” Jase looks around the room, oblivious to my sister’s hormone spike.
“Uh . . . I guess.” I look around too, frickin’ blank. All I can think to take is my clamshell ashtray. “The clothes, anyway. I suck at packing.”
“Toothbrush?” Jase suggests mildly. “Razor. Books, maybe? Sports stuff.”
“My lacrosse stick from Ellery Prep? Don’t think I’ll need it.” I tap out another cigarette.
“Bike? Skateboard? Swim gear?” Jase glances over at me, smile flashing in the flare of my lighter.
Mom barges back in so fast, the door knocks against the wall. An umbrella and a huge yellow slicker are draped over one arm, an iron in one hand. “You’ll want these. Should I pack you blankets? What happened to that nice boy you were going to move in with, anyway?”
“Didn’t work out.” As in: That nice boy, my AA buddy Connell, relapsed on both booze and crack, called me all slurry and screwed up, full of blurry suck-ass excuses, so he’s obviously out. The garage apartment is my best option.
“Is there even any heat in that ratty place?”
“Jesus God, Ma. You haven’t even seen the frickin’—”
“It’s pretty reliable,” Jase says, not even wincing. “It was my brother’s, and Joel likes his comforts.”
“All right. I’ll . . . leave you two boys to—carry on.” She pauses, runs her hand through her hair, showing half an inch of gray roots beneath the red. “Don’t forget to take the stenciled paper Aunt Nancy sent in case you need to write thank-you notes.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Ma. Uh, forgetting, I mean.”
Jase bows his head, smiling, then shoulders the cardboard box.
“What about pillows?” she says. “You can tuck those right under the other arm, can’t you, a big strapping boy like you?”
He obediently raises an elbow and she rams two pillows into his armpit.
“I’ll throw all this in the Jetta. Take your time, Tim.”
I scan the room one last time. Tacked to the corkboard over my desk is a sheet of paper with the words THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO scrawled in red marker at the top. One of the few days last fall I remember clearly—hanging with a bunch of my (loser) friends at Ellery out by the boathouse, where they stowed the kayaks (and the stoners). We came up with our antidote to those stupid yearbook lists: Most likely to be a millionaire by twenty-five. Most likely to star in her own reality show. Most likely to get an NFL contract. Don’t know why I kept the thing.
I pop the list off the wall, fold it carefully, jam it into my back pocket.
Nan emerges as soon as Jase, who’s been waiting for me in the foyer, opens the creaky front door to head out.
“Tim,” she whispers, cool hand wrapping around my forearm. “Don’t vanish.” As if when I leave our house I’ll evaporate like fog rising off the river.
Maybe I will.
By the time we pull into the Garretts’ driveway, I’ve burned through three cigarettes, hitting up the car lighter for the next before I’ve chucked the last. If I could have smoked all of them at once, I would’ve.
“You should kick those,” Jase says, looking out the window, not pinning me with some accusatory face.
I make to hurl the final butt, then stop myself.
Yeah, toss it next to little Patsy’s Cozy Coupe and four-year-old George’s midget baby-blue bike with training wheels. Plus, George thinks I’ve quit.
“Can’t,” I tell him. “Tried. Besides, I’ve already given up drinking, drugs, and sex. Gotta have a few vices or I’d be too perfect.”
Jase snorts. “Sex? Don’t think you have to give that up.” He opens the passenger-side door, starts to slide out.
“The way I did it, I do. Gotta stop messing with any chick with a pulse.”
Now Jase looks uncomfortable. “That was an addiction too?” he asks, half in, half out the door, nudging the pile of old newspapers on the passenger side with the toe of one Converse.
“Not in the sense that I, like, had to have it, or whatever. It was just . . another way to blow stuff off. Numb out.”
He nods like he gets it, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. Gotta explain. “I’d get wasted at parties. Hook up with girls I didn’t like or even know. It was never all that great.”
“Guess not”—he slides out completely—“if you’re with someone you don’t even like or know. Might be different if you were sober and actually cared.”
“Yeah, well.” I light up one last cigarette. “Don’t hold your breath.”
“There is,” I say through my teeth, “an owl in the freezer. Can any of you guys explain this to me?”
Three of my younger brothers stare back at me. Blank walls. My younger sister doesn’t look up from texting.
I repeat the question.
“Harry put it there,” Duff says.
“Duff told me to,” Harry says.
George, my youngest brother, cranes his neck. “What kind of owl? Is it dead? Is it white like Hedwig?”
I poke at the rock-solid owl, which is wrapped in a frosty freezer bag. “Very dead. Not white. And someone ate all the frozen waffles and put the box back in empty again.”
They all shrug, as if this is as much of an unsolvable mystery as the owl.
“Let’s try again. Why is this owl in the freezer?”
“Harry’s going to bring it in for show-and-tell when school starts,” Duff says.
“Sanjay Sapati brought in a seal skull last year. This is way better. You can still see its eyeballs. They’re only a little rotted.” Harry stirs his oatmeal, frowning down at what I’ve tried to pass off as a fun “breakfast for lunch” occasion. He upturns the spoon, shakes it, but the glob of oatmeal sticks, thick as paste, stubborn as my brother. Harry holds the spoon out toward me, accusingly.
“You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” I say to him.
“But I do. I do get upset. This is nasty, Alice.”
“Just eat it,” I say, clinging to patience with all my fingernails. This is all temporary. Just until Dad gets a bit better, until Mom doesn’t have to be in three places at once. “It’s healthy,” I add, but I have to agree with my seven-year-old brother. We’re way overdue for a grocery run. The fridge has nothing but eggs, applesauce, and ketchup, the cabinet is bare of anything but Joel’s protein-enhanced oatmeal. And the only thing in the freezer is . . . a dead bird.
“We can’t have an owl in here, guys.” I scramble for Mom’s reasonable tone. “It’ll make the ice cream taste bad.”
“Can we have ice cream instead of this?” Harry pushes, sticking his spoon into the oatmeal, where it pokes out like a gravestone on a gray hill.
I try to sell it as “the kind of porridge the Three Bears ate,” but George and Harry are skeptical, Duff, at eleven, is too old for all that, and Andy wrinkles her nose and says, “I’ll eat later. I’m too nervous now anyway.”
“It’s lame to be nervous about Kyle Comstock,” Duff says. “He’s a boob.”
“Boooooob,” Patsy repeats from her high chair, the eighteen-month-old copycat.
“You don’t understand anything,” Andy says, leaving the kitchen, no doubt to try on yet another outfit before sailing camp awards. Six hours away from now.
“Who cares what she wears? It’s the stupid sailing awards,” Duff grumbles. “This stuff is vomitous, Alice. It’s like gruel. Like what they make Oliver Twist eat.”
“He wanted more,” I point out.
“He was starving,” Duff counters.
“Look, stop arguing and eat the damn stuff.”
George’s eyes go big. “Mommy doesn’t say that word. Daddy says not to.”
“Well, they aren’t here, are they?”
George looks mournfully down at his oatmeal, poking at it with his spoon like he might find Mom and Dad in there.
“Sorry, Georgie,” I say repentantly. “How about some eggs, guys?”
“No!” they all say at once. They’ve had my eggs before. Since Mom has been spending a lot of time at either doctors’ appointments for herself or doctor and physical therapy consults for Dad, they’ve suffered through the full range of my limited culinary talents.
“I’ll get rid of the owl if you give us money to eat breakfast in town,” Duff says.
“Alice, look!” Andy says despairingly, “I knew this wouldn’t fit.” She hovers in the doorway in the sundress I lent her, the front sagging. “When do I get off the itty-bitty-titty committee? You did before you were even thirteen.” She sounds accusatory, like I used up the last available bigger chest size in the family.
“Titty committee?” Duff starts laughing. “Who’s on that? I bet Joel is. And Tim.”
“You are so immature that listening to you actually makes me younger,” Andy tells him. “Alice, help! I love this dress. You never lend it to me. I’m going to die if I can’t wear it.” She looks wildly around the kitchen. “Do I stuff it? With what?”
“Bread crumbs?” Duff is still cracking up. “Oatmeal? Owl feathers?”
I point the oatmeal spoon at her. “Never stuff. Own your size.”
“I want to wear this dress.” Andy scowls at me. “It’s perfect. Except it doesn’t fit. There. Do you have anything else? That’s flatter?”
“Did you ask Samantha?” I glare at Duff, who is shoving several kitchen sponges down his shirt. Harry, who doesn’t get what’s going on—I hope—but is happy to join in on tormenting Andy, is wadding up some diapers from Patsy’s clean stack and following suit. My brother’s girlfriend has much more patience than I do. Maybe because Samantha only has one sibling to deal with.
“She’s helping her mom take her sister to college—she probably won’t be back till tonight. Alice! What do I do?”
My jaw clenches at the mere mention of Grace Reed, Sam’s mom, the closest thing our family has to a nemesis. Or maybe it’s the owl. God. Get me out of here.
“I’m hungry,” Harry says. “I’m starving here. I’ll be dead by night.”
“It takes three weeks to starve,” George tells him, his air of authority undermined by his hot cocoa mustache.
“Ughhh. No one cares!” Andy storms away.
“She’s got the hormones going on,” Duff confides to Harry. Ever since hearing it from my mother, my little brothers treat “hormones” like a contagious disease.
My cell phone vibrates on the cluttered counter. Brad again. I ignore it, start banging open cabinets. “Look, guys, we’re out of everything, got it? We can’t go shopping until we get this week’s take-home from the store, and no one has time to go anyway. I’m not giving you money. So it’s oatmeal or empty stomachs. Unless you want peanut butter on toast.”
“Not again,” Duff groans, shoving away from the table and stalking out of the kitchen.
“Gross,” Harry says, doing the same, after accidentally knocking over his orange juice—and ignoring it.
How does Mom stand this? I pinch the muscles at the base of my neck, hard, close my eyes. Push away the most treacherous thought of all: Why does Mom stand this?
George is still doggedly trying to eat a spoonful of oatmeal, one rolled oat at a time.
“Don’t bother, G. You still like peanut butter, right?”
Breathing out a long sigh, world-weary at four, George rests his freckled cheek against his hand, watching me with a focus that reminds me of Jase. “You can make diamonds out of peanut butter. I readed about it.”
“Read,” I say automatically, replenishing the raisins I’d sprinkled on the tray of Patsy’s high chair.
“Yucks a dis,” she says, picking each raisin up with a delicate pincer grip and dropping it off the side of the high chair.
“Do you think we could make diamonds out of this peanut butter?” George asks hopefully as I open the jar of Jif.
“I wish, Georgie,” I say, looking at the empty cabinet over by the window, and then noticing a dark blue Jetta pull into our driveway, the door kick open, a tall figure climb out, the sun hitting his rusty hair, lighting it like a match.
Fabulous. Exactly what we need for the flammable family mix. Tim Mason. The human equivalent of C-4.
We walk up the creaky garage stairs and Jase hauls a key out of his pocket, unlocks the door, flips on the lights. I brush past him and drop my cardboard box on the ground. Joel’s old apartment is low-ceilinged and decorated with milk crate bookcases, ugly couch, mini-fridge, microwave, denim beanbag chair with Sox logo, walls covered in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and all that—tits everywhere—and a gigantic iron weight rack with a shit-ton of weights.
“This is where Joel took all those au pairs? I thought he had better game than this massive cliché.”
Jase grimaces. “Welcome to Bootytown. Supposedly the nannies never minded because they expected it of American boys. Want me to help yank ’em down?”
“Nah, I can always count body parts if I have trouble sleeping.”
After a brief scope-out of the apartment, during which he makes a face and empties a few trash cans, he asks, “This gonna work for you?”
“Absolutely.” I reach into my pocket, pull out the lined paper list I snatched off my bulletin board, and slap it on the refrigerator, adios-ing a babe in hot-pink spandex.
Jase scans my sign, shakes his head. “Mase . . . you know you can come on over anytime.”
“I’ve been to boarding school, Garrett. Not like I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Don’t be a dick,” he says mildly. He points in the direction of the bathroom. “The plumbing backs up sometimes. If the plunger doesn’t work, text; I can fix it. I repeat, you’re always welcome to head to our house. Or join me on the predawn job. I gotta pick up Samantha now. She ended up not going to Vermont. Ride along?”
“With the perfect high school sweethearts? Nah. I think I’ll stay and see if I can break the plunger. Then I’ll text you.”
He flips me off, grins, and leaves.
Time to get my ass to a meeting. Better that than alone with a ton of airbrushed boobs and my unfiltered thoughts.
When I walk up the Garretts’ overgrown lawn after the meeting—which only partially took the edge off—the first thing I see is Jase’s older sister, Alice, tanning in the front yard.
In a bikini.
Toenails painted the color of fireballs.
Can I say there are few things on earth that cheer me up more than Alice Garrett in a bikini?
Except Alice without a bikini. Which I’ve never seen, but I’ve a hell of an imagination.
She’s almost asleep, in a tiny blue-and-green lawn chair, her head and her long, always-morphing hair (brown with blond streaks right now) flopping heavily to one side, curling shorter in the late-summer heat. Because I’m unscrupulous, I flop down on the grass next to her and take a good long look.
After a few seconds, she opens her eyes, squints, flips her hand to her forehead to block the sun, stares at me.
“Now,” I tell her, “would be an excellent time to avoid unsightly tan lines. I stand ready to assist.”
“Now,” she says, with that killer smile, “would be an even better time to avoid lame come-ons.”
“Aw, Alice, I swear I’ll be there to soothe your regret for wasting time once you realize I’ve been right for you all along.”
“Tim, I’d chew you up and spit you out.” She slants forward, yanks the straps of her bikini behind her neck, ties them, and settles back. God. I almost can’t breathe.
But I can talk.
I can always talk.
“We could progress to that, Alice. But maybe we start with some gentle nibbling?”
Alice shuts her eyes, opens them again, and gives me an indecipherable look.
“Why don’t I scare you?” she asks.
“You do. You’re scary as hell,” I assure her. “But that works for me. Completely.”
She’s about to say something, but the family van pulls in just then, even more battered than usual. The right front fender has flaking paint. They’ve tried to put some rust primer around the sliding back door. The side looks like it’s been keyed. Both hubcap covers on this side are missing. Alice starts to get up, but I rest my hand on a smooth brown shoulder, press her down.
She squints up at me, head cocked to the side, rubs her bottom lip with her finger. Then settles back in the chair. “Thanks.”
Mrs. Garrett, wearing a bright blue beach cover-up-type thing and a wigged-out face, climbs out of the van.
“Everything okay?” I ask, sort of a joke since there’s nothing but ear-melting screeching when I slide open the side door. Patsy, George, and Harry are all red-faced and sweaty. Patsy’s mouth is open in a huge O and she’s a sobbing mess. George also looks teary-eyed. Harry’s more like pissed off.
“I’m not a baby,” he announces to me.
“Clear on that, man.” Though he’s wearing bathing trunks with little red fire hats on them.
“She”—he jabs a sandy finger at his mom—“made us leave the beach.”
“Patsy’s naptime, Harry. You know this. You can swim in the big pool for a while. Maybe we can get a cone at Castle’s after the sailing awards.”
“Pools aren’t cool,” Harry moans. “We left before the ice-cream truck, Mommy. They have Spider-Man Bomb Pops.” He stalks up the steps, his angry, scrawny back all hunched over his skinny, little-dude legs. The screen door slams behind him.
“Whoa,” I say. “Child abuse.”
Mrs. Garrett laughs. “I’m the meanest mom in the world. I have it on good authority.” Then she glances at George and leans into me, smelling like coconut sunscreen. At first I think she’s sniff-checking my breath, because that’s why adults ever get this close. Instead she whispers, “Don’t mention asteroids.”
Not my go-to conversation starter, so all good there.
But George is clutching a copy of Newsweek, his shoulders heaving. Patsy’s still shrieking. Mrs. Garrett looks back and forth between them, like, who to triage first.
“I’ll take Screaming Mimi here,” I offer. Mrs. Garrett shoots me a grateful smile and flicks open Patsy’s car seat. Good thing, since I know dick about car seats.
As soon as she’s freed, Patsy looks up at me and her sobs dry up, like that. She still does that hic-hic-hic thing, but reaches out both hands for me.
“Hon,” she says. Hic-hic-hic.
I don’t get why, but this kid loves me crazy much. I pick her up and her sweaty little hands settle on my cheeks, patting them gently, never mind the stubble.
“Oh Hon,” she says, all loving and shit, giving me her cute-scary grin with her pointy incisors, like a baby vampire.
Mrs. Garrett smiles, swinging George out of the car onto her hip. He snuggles his head into her neck, magazine still rumpled in his clammy fingers.
“You’ll make a good dad, Tim. Someday in the far distant future.”
To cover a sudden embarrassing rush of . . . whatever . . . from the consoling weight of her hand on my back, I answer, “You better believe it. No the hell way am I adding knocking up some girl to my list of crimes and misdemeanors.”
The minute it’s out of my mouth I get that I’m an ass. Mrs. Garrett still looks pretty frickin’ young and her oldest kid is twenty-two. Could be she got knocked up and had to get married.
Also, probably? Knocking up? Not a phrase you should use with parents.
“Always good to have a plan,” she answers, unfazed.
She carries George into the house, leaving me with Patsy, who tips her teary, soft cheek against my own, nuzzling. Alice still has her eyes closed and is evidently removing herself from this scene every way but physically.
“Hon,” Patsy says again, slanting back to plant a sloppy kiss on my shoulder, checking me out from under her dew-droppy eyelashes. “Boob?”
“Sorry, kid, can’t help you there.”
I avoid looking at Alice, who has again untied the top strings of her bikini. She yawns, stretches. The top edges down a little lower. No tan lines. I close my eyes for a second.
Patsy grabs my ear, as if that’s a cool substitute for a boob. Could be. What do I know about babies? Or toddlers, or whatever you are when you’re one and a half. Could be it’s all about holding on to something and doesn’t matter much what you grab. I, of all people, get that.
“Recognized your Gators,” he says.
“Those. Come on in.”
I brush aside the stiff hospital curtain. Even nearly a month after the car accident, I still have to struggle to pull on the “all is well” nurse face I never dreamed I’d need with my own father. He looks a lot better. Fewer tubes, color better, bruises faded away. But Dad in a hospital bed still makes my stomach cramp and my lungs too heavy to pull in air. Before all this, I’d almost never seen him lying down, not in motion. Now the only thing that moves is one hand, stroking Mom’s hair. She’s asleep, nestled tight against him in the tiny, cramped bed.
“Shh,” Dad says. “She’s beat.”
She’s totally out, for sure. One arm hooked behind his neck, one wrapped around his waist.
“You too, hmm?” His voice is still faintly slurry, but gentle, the same steadying sound that got me through kid-nightmares, mean teachers, and Sophie McCade in eighth grade spreading rumors I’d had boob implants during the summer.
“I could ask you the same, Dad.”
He makes a scoffing sound. “I lounge around all day.”
“You have a broken pelvis. Not to mention lung damage from a pulmonary embolism. You’re not exactly eating bonbons.”
He peers at me, shifting aside Mom’s hair so he can look me more clearly in the eye. “What are bonbons? I’ve heard it and I’ve never known.”
“I have no idea, actually. But if I figure it out and bring you some, will you eat them?”
“I will if you will. We could make a contest of it. ‘My boy says he can eat fifty eggs . . .’”
“No, God. No Cool Hand Luke. What is it with that movie? Every male I know has, like, a thing with it.”
“We all like to believe we have a winning hand, Alice,” he says, dragging up the pillow behind him one-handed and giving it a hard punch to fluff it up.
“Say no more.” I reach for the cards in their familiar, worn box, next to the pink hospital-issue carafe of water, the kidney-shaped trough to spit into after tooth brushing, the clutter of empty, one-ounce pill cups, and the roll of medical tape to re-bandage his IV shunt. Nothing like home, his nightstand piled with wobbly, homemade, clay penholders and mugs, heaps of sci-fi books, the picture of him and Mom in high school—big curly hair on her, leather jacket on him.
“I haven’t the heart to break your streak,” he says with that grin that crinkles the corners of his eyes before overtaking his entire face. “The painkillers gave you an unfair advantage.”
“I’m six for seven, Dad. Is it your painkillers or my raw talent?” I smile.
“Well, I’m off ’em now. So we’ll see.” He edges to one side a bit and his face goes sheet-white. He looks up at the ceiling, his lips moving, counting away the pain, taking deep breaths.
“Pant, pant, blow,” I murmur. Labor breathing. Everyone in our family knows it.
“Whoo, who, hee.” Dad’s voice is tight. “God knows I should have that one down.”
“And yet Mom says you still don’t.” I try for another smile but it slips a little, so I focus on the cards, shuffling them once, twice, three times. “Do you want me to call your nurse?”
He reaches out for the cards, takes them, and does his famous one-handed shuffle.
“Only if she’s got bonbons. Look, they’re kicking me out of here soon,” he says abruptly. “Not enough beds, I’ve outstayed my welcome, I’m all fixed now. Not sure what the latest explanation is.”
“Home,” he says on a sigh. “Or a rehab facility. They’ve left it up to us.” He glances down at Mom, smiles, the same grin as in the SBH photo, tucks the hanging-out tag of her dress under the neckline. She nestles closer.
“Rehab’s covered by our deal with the devil,” I point out. Our devil may be a tall, blond, conservative state senator, but facts are facts.
“You can’t think of it that way, Alice.” He shakes his head, winces.
Still in pain, no matter how often he says it’s not a problem. The last of his summer tan is fading, the line of his jaw cuts sharper, his shoulders locked in rigid lines. He looks at least four years older than he did four weeks ago and it’s all that woman’s fault. However often she sends fancy dinner salads and gourmet casseroles over with Samantha, I can’t forget. I can’t drive past reality without even stopping, the way she did.
“Grace Reed did this, Dad. She wrecked us. She—”
“Look at me,” he says. I do, trying not to flinch at the shaved part of his scalp where they drilled the hole to relieve pressure from his head injury. Duff, Harry, and George just call it “Dad’s weird haircut.”
“A little battered maybe. But definitely not wrecked. Accepting rehab, on top of all the hospital bills—charity.”
“Not charity, Dad. Justice.”
“You know as well as I do that it’s time to get on with things, Alice. Suck it up and get on home. I’m needed there.”
I want him there. I want everything back the way it was. Coming in late at night from a date or whatever to find him watching random History Channel or National Geographic documentaries, baby after baby, Duff, Harry, then George, then Patsy conked out against his shoulder, clicker poised in his hand, nearly dozing himself, but awake enough to rouse and say, “Do you know the plane Lindbergh flew to Paris was only made of fabric? A little glue brushed over it. Amazing what people can do.” But I’m enough of a professional to look at his vital signs and translate his medical chart by heart. No matter how amazing it is what people can do, bodies have their limits.
“You know better,” I say, “about what’s needed. What you have to do.”
A muscle in Dad’s jaw jumps.
How much pain is he in? He should still be on those pills.
I wipe my expression clean, rubbing the back of my neck with one hand. Game face.
The things Mom and I traded off doing, today alone. I did breakfast while she did morning sickness and talked on the phone setting up everyone’s back to school doctor appointments. I drove Duff to the eye doctor, she took Andy to the orthodontist, then the little guys to the beach. Then we all went to the sailing awards. Mom cheered up Andy in the bathroom after Jade Whelan said something stupid to her, then took her to get frozen yogurt. I hauled the little kids to Castle’s for hot dogs. Mom ferried the gang to Jase’s practice, then dropped them off and came to visit Dad—and dozed off. I stayed home until everyone crashed except Andy, then came here, chugging a venti Starbucks on the way. And I’m only Mom’s stunt double. I’m not Dad.
“If you leave here for home, you’ll be picking up George and Patsy, toting them to the car. You’ll be driving Harry and Duff to soccer. Taking Andy to middle school dances. Relieving Jase at the store. You’ll be on all the time, Dad. You can’t do that yet. It’ll only set you back and make things worse. For all of us.”
He scrubs his hand over his forehead. Sighs.
“Aren’t you supposed to be the child I’m imparting all my hard-earned wisdom to, Alice?”
Mom shifts in her sleep, pulling her arm from his waist to rest on her stomach.
The new baby. Right. I almost always forget about that. Her. Him.
Dad reaches his good hand down to cover hers. He never forgets.
I rest against the windowsill, put my head down on my crossed arms. Cloudless night with, I don’t know, crickets, locusts, whatever, making sounds in the high grass the Garretts wait too long to cut. You can even hear the river if you listen hard enough.
When my eyes adjust to the dark, I see her.
Alice is tipped back against the hood of the Bug, looking up. Not at me. At the sky. Full moon, a few clouds. Stars. She’s darkly silhouetted against the white car, all curves, one foot on the bumper, moonlight shining off a knee.
Early the next morning, I jolt out of bed so fast my brain practically sloshes against my skull. Where am I? The familiar feeling—the burning, dizzy oh shit of it—makes my temples crash and bang.
I got drunk last night.
Because, if not, why am I so freaking disoriented?
Then I remember, assisted by the twelve girls in twelve different improbable contortions staring at me. I rub sweat off my forehead, fall back on the hard-as-hell couch I crashed on after too much quality time with the Xbox, and listen to the emptiness.
I never realized how freaking quiet it is when you’re all alone in a building.
Then I’m up, yanking one poster off the wall, then the next, then the next, until the walls are bare and I’m breathing hard.
Running—isn’t that what Jase does when he doesn’t want to think? I rummage around in my cardboard box for gym shorts I can’t find. Just lame gray slacks. Who packed those? And my Asics—nowhere to be found. I pull on the only workout option, a faded pair of swim trunks, and head for Stony Bay Beach. I read once that Navy Seals train by running on sand. Barefoot. It’s harder, a better workout.
I’ll jog to the pier. Gotta be like a mile or something. Good start, right?
It would be, except that a mile’s a hell of a long way. The pier’s still as distant as a mirage and I’m gasping for breath, wanting to collapse in the sand.
I’m seven-fuckin’-teen, for God’s sake. The prime of my life. The height of my physical prowess. The golden age I look back on one day when I’m boring my own kids. But I can’t run like the wind. I can’t run like the breeze. Patsy could run faster, without needing an oxygen tank afterward. I slump down in the sand, falling first to my knees, then rolling to collapse onto my back, hand over my eyes against the early-morning light, sucking in air like it’s filtered through nicotine.
Gotta lose the cigarettes.
“Need mouth to mouth?” asks a female voice.
Damn, I didn’t know there was anyone on the beach, much less someone close . . . Alice. How long has she been watching me? I edge my hand away from my eyes.
Ah, another bikini. Thank you, Jesus. If I’m gonna die of shame, at least I’ll die happy. This is one of those Bond-girl types, dark green with a lime green zipper down the front, a little belt cinching in the bottom, about three fingers below where her waist swoops in before her hips fan out. My fingers twitch, will of their own. I shove my fists in my pockets. “Definitely,” I gasp. “I need mouth to mouth. Right now.”
“If you can talk, I think you’ll survive.”
I lick my dry lips. “Don’t think I’m ready for the triathlon, Alice.”
She does an unexpected thing, lying down next to me on her side, tilting toward me, sudden smile, curvy as the rest of her.
“At least you’ve got your running shoes on.” She looks down at my feet. “No, you don’t even, do you? Who jogs barefoot?” Her toes tangle with mine for a second, then move away. She looks down at the sand, not at me, draws a squiggly line between us.
“Traction, honey,” Alice says.
“I thought that was only when you’d broken a leg. Navy Seals do it. So I’ve heard.”
I wait for her to make fun of that, but instead she smiles a little more, almost undetectably, unless you’re looking hard at her lips, which I may be doing—says, “Maybe put off the BUDs challenge until you’ve built up more . . . stamina.”
There are so many ways I could answer that.
She moves closer; smells like I’ve always thought Hawaii would, green and sweet, earthy, sun and sea mixed together, smoky warm. Her greenish gray eyes, flecks of gold too—
“You’ve only got one dimple,” she says.
“That a drawback? I had two, but I misplaced one after a particularly hard night.”
She gives my shoulder a shove. “You joke about everything.”
“Everything is pretty funny,” I say, trying to sit up, but sinking down immediately, back groaning. “If you look at it the right way.”
“How do you know you’re looking at it the right way?” Alice’s head’s lowered, she’s still circling an index finger in the sand, only inches from brushing her knuckles past my stomach. The morning air is still and calm—no sound of the waves, even.
“If it’s funny,” I wheeze, “you’re looking at it the right way.”
“Yo, Aleece!” I look up and there’s that douche-canoe, her boyfriend, Brad, looming large, big shoulders muscling out the sun.
“Brad.” She’s up, brushing sand from her swimsuit. He pats her on the butt, looking at me in this my territory way.
“You’re late. Brad, Tim. Tim, Brad.”
“Yo, Tim.” Brad, man of few, and strictly one-syllable, words. One of those guys built like a linebacker but with a little kid face, all rosy cheeks and twinkly eyes. To compensate, I guess, he has a scruffy, barely there beard.
“So, Ally-pals,” he says to Alice.
“I’ve been ready for a while. You’re the one who’s late,” Alice says, sharply.
She turns to me, running her hands through her hair, flipping it back from her face. “I’m training for the five K—Brad’s timing me.”
“You’re a runner? How did I not know that?”
She opens her mouth, like why on earth would I know anything whatsoever about her, but then looks down, tightens the notch on the belt of her bikini bottom. Which brings my attention back to her stomach, the belly ring, and I . . .
Roll over onto my stomach.
Brad clears his throat, arms folded, chin jutting. Got it, caveman.
“I won’t hold you up,” I add. Alice shoots Brad an unreadable look, drops down on her knees, bending over me again, her breath biting sweet as peppermint candy. “Sneakers next time, Tim.”
I’m panting, hands on knees, at the end of my first sprint. Sweat slides into my eyes, and I brush my hair back, try to corral what isn’t in my ponytail behind my ears.
Brad uncaps the water bottle, hands it to me, stooping low to squint at my face. Then he says in a low voice, “You wanna tell me what that was about?” He jerks his thumb toward the distant figure of Tim, still collapsed on the sand, head on his folded arms.
“What? Tim? He’s my kid brother’s friend. We were talking.”
He rubs his chin. “I dunno, Ally. That’s all it was?”
Two more sips of water, then I pour some into my hand, rub it over my face.
Tim’s standing up now, shielding his eyes, looking toward us—then the other way down the beach. Now he’s sprinting in that direction, no stretching out, no slow jog to start, right into a flat-out run. Gah.
“Of course that’s all it was.”
Sam’s Club is no stranger to Garrett family meltdowns. Harry always loses it in the toy aisle, George is extremely sensitive about our ice-cream choices, Patsy gets overtired and screeches. This time, though, the meltdown is all mine.
“I think you’re taking this waaay too seriously,” Joel says, holding up both palms in that Whoa, you overemotional woman way that makes me furious.
I shake the papers at him. “It says two red, one-inch binders. Red. One-inch. I send you off to do that one simple thing. These are blue. Two-inch.”
“So what?” Joel scratches the back of his neck, checking out a girl who’s smiling at him while daintily placing huge packs of glitter glue in her cart.
“So, the school list says red. We get red. That’s what lists are for. So people get things right.”
“Al, I don’t think this is about school supplies. You’re scaring Patsy. You’re scaring me.”
“Good,” I snap.
Patsy points at me. “Bad.” She’s scowling from her perch in the shopping cart.
“Not you, honey. You, Joel. Maybe you need scaring, or some reminder of what’s really going on. Because you’re not around—not all the time. You don’t see how close everything is to—to—”
“That’s what this is about.” My brother settles back against a wall of paper towels, tilts his chin. “Me not being around all the time. That you are.”
“No,” I say. “Not that at all. What do I care if you’re moving in with your girlfriend and starting your training at the police academy when everything is up in the air? So what? Whatever.”
Joel sighs, reaches over, and plucks a handful of chocolate chip cookies off a free sample tray. “Al, I’m twenty-two. Out of college. I need to get on with it. Gisele and I have been seeing each other for a while. I want to find out where that goes. I don’t want to be living above our garage for the rest of my life. Not too functional.”
“Since when has that mattered?” I say, moving away from Patsy, who’s trying to yank down the top of my shirt, still scowling.
“Uh, since I spent my twenty-second birthday at the hospital the night Dad was hit. I love our family, Al. I’d do anything for any of us, even you. But everything—my life—it can’t stop.”
Everything has done anything but stop—as Joel should know. It’s accelerated to warp speed. Before that, this summer, for me, there were a few classes, a few hours of work at the hospital rehab center, maybe covering at the store, but other than that it was the beach and Brad and my favorite time of year. Sand and salt and ice-cream cones.
Now it’s almost Labor Day and things—classes, sports, afterschool stuff—will be picking up—for everyone. Dad will be recovering for who knows how much longer, Mom pregnant, Jase’s football schedule, band for Andy and Duff—we’ll need to figure out more babysitting and my actual own life is—
Deep breath. I lower my shoulders, which are practically grazing my earlobes.
Joel tosses a 500-pack box of Slim Jims into the cart. I snatch them out and shove them back on the shelf. “Do you even know what’s in those?”
“Is this about you not liking Gisele?”
“I like Gisele fine,” I say.
Can’t stand Gisele.
Last time she came by, she had Joel pumping up her bicycle tires while she stood there looking all Parisian in a striped blue-and-white dress and a red scarf, fluttering her hands. But I know better than to say that. He’s moving in with her. That should be the kiss of death for both of them.
“Sure you do. Brad’s no prize, you know.” Joel hands Patsy a chocolate chip cookie, which she immediately smooshes all over her face and into her hair, wiping the last of the chocolate across her pink shirt for good measure.
“Brad’s on his way out,” I say, leafing through the school supplies lists, mentally crossing things off. Harry—still needs twelve-count colored pencils, one “quality” pack of erasers, whatever that is. Duff—no, I am not getting materials for the solar system project yet—otherwise he’s set. Andy can get her own supplies, for God’s sake, she’s fourteen. “Too time-consuming.” As if to confirm this, my phone vibrates with what turns out to be another selfie of Brad at the gym.
“Alice,” Joel says, giving yet another girl the once-over (Gisele, you are toast!). “That’s what I mean. You’re supposed to have your time consumed by that sort of thing.” He flicks the school supplies list. “Not this.”
“That baby is too young for chocolate,” says a grouchy-looking woman who has her own baby in one of those weird sling things.
“Nobody asked you,” I snap. Her brows draw together. Joel gives her his most charming smile, drawing me away by the elbow.
“But we’re grateful for your advice. Who knew? Thank you.”
She smooths her shirt and actually smiles back at him.
Here’s Brad sitting on our steps when we get home, texting—probably me—with a frown. “Allykins,” he says, coming to his feet for a hug.
Joel raises an eyebrow at me with a smirk, mutters, “I’m off to see Dad.” And leaves.
Without carrying in any of the school supplies.
In the kitchen, Jase, obviously fresh from practice, sweaty and with grass stains on his jersey, is plowing through a huge bowl of chicken and brown rice. Tim’s planted on our counter like he belongs there, scarfing down something with melted cheese all over it, hot enough to be steaming. Duff, Harry, and George are eating blueberry pie with melting vanilla ice cream. Dirty plates everywhere. The kitchen smells like boy and feet.
And . . . Tim again.
All relaxed and at home, wearing the swimsuit he was jogging in this morning and a Hodges Heroes baseball shirt that’s slightly too tight even on him. He grins at me, lopsided dimple and all.
Hot mess inside and out, that boy, probably hasn’t even showered. Certainly hasn’t shaved carefully, since he’s got a little cut near his chin. Yet another person who needs a mother, a maid, a manager—
I set Patsy down, grab her pink princess sippy cup, slosh milk into it, screw on the top, shove it at him. “Slow down. I’m not driving you to the hospital when you get second-degree tongue burn.”
Tim takes a defiant bite of scalding cheese. Another. Then slowly raises the sippy cup, salutes me, and, watching me with serious eyes, gulps it down.
“Pie,” Brad says happily. “I love pie.” He pulls out a chair, flips it around, straddles it, and says, “Cut my slice extra-big, Allosaurus.”
George cocks his head, wrinkling his nose. “Allosauruses were some of the biggest dinosaurs of all. They ate Stegosauruses. Alice isn’t very big. And she’s a vegetarian.”
Brad can get his own damn pie.
“Get your own damn pie,” Tim mumbles between more mouthfuls of volcanic cheese.
“Hey, Alice, Joel’s completely out of the garage—he’s not coming back for anything, right?” Jase slosh-pours himself a huge glass of milk, drains half of it, refills. Finally got groceries, and at this rate they’ll be gone tomorrow.
“Thank God, yes,” I say.
“Great,” he says. “I told Tim he could take it. He moved in last night.”
“No escaping me now,” Tim tells me cheerfully.
“Boy, Alice. Your face is really red,” George says after a second.
“Al—” Jase starts, then falters.
Tim takes one look at me and jolts off the counter, hand outstretched. “Whoa. What—hell—what did I—?”
I hold up my own hand. “Don’t say another word . . . There are groceries and school supplies in the Bug. Deal with them.” Then I practically drag Brad out by his hair.
“I screwed up again, yeah?” I say to Jase as the door slams behind Alice and ol’ Brad.
Jase rubs a hand down his face. “I’ll talk to her.”
“What, was she, like, going to move in there—with that guy? ‘I love pie’? What is he, five?”
“Alice never said a thing to me, Tim.” Jase picks up a forkful of chicken, puts it back down.
George says philosophically, “Pie is good. Except the kind with four and twenty blackbirds baked in it, prolly. You know, like, sing a songofsixpence, pockafullarye?” he warbles in this high voice that sort of slays me. “That sounds yuck.”
“No way would they sing when they opened it,” Harry says, with his mouth full of crust. “Because they’d all be cooked and dead.”
George’s eyes get big. “Would they?” he asks, looking back and forth between me and Jase. “Cooked?”
“No way,” Jase says firmly, “because . . .” He hesitates a second, and George’s eyes start filling.
“Because, dude, it wouldn’t be an eating pie,” I say. “It would be a performance pie. Like something to make the king laugh because he was all stressed from—”
“Counting out his money,” Jase finishes, nodding, all confident. “Right, G-man? Isn’t that what he was doing—‘in the countinghouse, counting out his money’?”
George nods soberly. “He’d be all upset like Daddy at work, so they’d make him a performance pie? Like, like a play?”
“Exactly,” I say. “They’d make this, uh, fake pie—”
“To make him laugh. Like Mommy does.” George is nodding, like the whole thing makes total sense now.
“But where would they get the blackbirds?” Harry asks. “Who has blackbirds lying around?”
“They’d probably have them in the barn or something,” Duff says, all fake-casual. “Like, kind of tame ones. Maybe the king was, uh, into birds.”
This story is getting away from us. But George is down with it. “We could look them up in my Big Birds of the World book. See if you can tame blackbirds.” He slides off the kitchen chair and trots off, Harry at his heels.
“Nice job, Duffy,” Jase says. “Thanks for chiming in.”
“I was sort of lame,” Duff admits, scraping up the last of his pie. “‘The king was into birds’? But I tried. It’s just hard sometimes to see what’s gonna scare George.”
“Dead, baked birds? It’d give me nightmares.” I shudder.
That or that asskite Brad, and what Alice might be getting up to with him right this very minute.
“Do we have to?”