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Here I am.
Standing at the base of Rusty's front porch, where I've been for probably a full minute, trying to find the courage to move. Over the past couple of years, I keep having moments like these, where I come to a sudden halt, look around and ask myself, Grace Cochran, what were you thinking?
The answer is always the same. I was not thinking.
Sarah, my caseworker from social services, is beside me, watching carefully. Back in the day, she was a Troubled Teen on Drugs, but then she went to rehab and cleaned up and found God and etcetera, and now she's trying to make the world better, one troubled orphan at a time. Which probably explains why she's looking at me as though I might spontaneously combust. Having once been a Troubled Teen, she's in tune with such things. "Take your time," Sarah says. "It's probably a little overwhelming for you, coming back to your uncle's."
"You have no idea," I say.
Which is absolutely true.
If Sarah knew what had happened the last time I set foot in New Harbor, she wouldn't be so keen on carting me back here right now.
My heart races in my ears. The instinct to run is sharp and physical, as if some lunatic is coming at me with a knife. I close my eyes for a beat, trying to reel myself back in. Rusty is family, the only blood relative I have left, so as screwed up as it is, I belong here. This place is home — or as close to home as I can have right now. I breathe in deeply and drag my suitcase up the porch steps, both my bravery and my feet stopping before I get to the door.
Sarah clears her throat, glancing at Rusty's house and then back at me. I have the distinct impression that psychoanalysis is about to occur, so I busy myself by idly swatting away a mosquito. Sarah starts in anyway. "I'm sure you'll fall into a routine here. Reacquaint yourself with your uncle. Rekindle some old friendships." She pauses for a moment, waiting for me to reply.
I do not. I'd sooner talk about how sausage is made.
"Your uncle tells me you have an old friend here," she goes on in a low voice, and then she elbows me, just barely. "Even a boyfriend, at some point?"
And just like that, my lungs start closing up. I can feel my pulse banging in my ears, my fingertips, the backs of my knees. I imagine a field of sunflowers — something my therapist told me to do when I feel like I'm losing control.
It doesn't help.
Slowly, methodically, like I just bought my mouth and I'm not yet sure how to use it, I say, "Owen and I were together for, like, a few months. We broke up, and I haven't spoken to him since." Looking down at my hands, which are knotted together in a white-knuckled clamp, I talk myself down. Everything's going to be fine. Owen has already graduated from high school, so he'll be heading off to college at the end of the summer. All I need to do is avoid him for a couple of months. I can do that, can't I?
Heaps of sunflowers.
The freaking planet, covered in sunflowers.
"Did I say something to upset you?" Sarah asks.
"It's just — I don't know," I say quietly, working to keep my voice calm. "It's everything, I guess. I'm finding it kind of overwhelming, being here."
"Look," Sarah whispers, her eyes on mine, steady and firm, "I know you're upset with your uncle for leaving you in foster care for so long. I get that. But you need to understand that this is a big change for Rusty, and it's better that he took his time and made sure it's the right decision. It was the responsible thing to do."
With great effort, I restrain a snort. The last time Rusty was a responsible human being was never. His brain is a tossed salad of Michelob, Cheetos and nearly half a century of adolescence. So I don't reply to Sarah. I just let out a loud exhale.
Sarah stares at me for a tick. She's probably only five-two, but the way she carries herself makes her appear six feet tall. "You've got this, Grace," she says, loudly enough that I wince, and before I can stop her or say anything else, she steps forward and rings the doorbell.
Footsteps clomp through the house.
I try to breathe. In through the nose and out through the mouth. In through the nose and out through the mouth. In through the nose and out through the —
Rusty throws open the door in a grand, animated gesture, like he's presenting himself onstage. He was a singer, way back when, and he never quite adjusted to life without performance. "Grace!" he hollers, his voice, as always, several decibels too loud.
I don't know what I was expecting. Red-rimmed eyes or pale skin or a guilty tilt to his brows, maybe. Or some other tangible evidence that the past couple of years have been as hard on him as they've been on me. But Rusty hasn't changed one bit. He's still all lopsided grin and cowboy hat and exuberance. He launches himself over the threshold and crushes me in his arms, holding me hostage for several breaths. He smells just as he always has, like Old Spice deodorant and cigars and the first few days of summer. Pulling away, he holds me at arm's length. "Holy hell, G, you look great!"
Anxiety and panic sear my stomach, even though I know there was a time that I felt as safe with Rusty as I had with my own father. "Thanks," I say, backing out of his grip, the word coming out pricklier than anticipated.
His smile falls, just barely. Which should make me feel vindicated. But the fact is, Rusty's smile used to be one of my favorite things, back when I had favorite things.
We stare at each other. We breathe. He shifts his weight. Sidestepping the awkwardness, Rusty turns to Sarah. "Ma'am," he says. He tips his hat and winks, his trademark move with the ladies. His fourth wife called it charming.
But, Sarah, she just gives him a curt nod.
I clear my throat. "Right," I say finally, wiping my palms on my clothes and doing my best to smile like a seventeen-year-old whose entire life hasn't been jerked out from underneath her. "So I'll just ..." I gesture to the doorway, which Rusty is mostly blocking. My big idea to get past him is to step around him a little. Like we're chess pieces: he's a knight and he can't move to my square. But he wraps a meaty arm around me and half squeezes, half drags me into the living room, where he and Sarah talk "guardianship" and "custody" and "rules and regulations," during which I do not open my mouth or form a syllable or communicate in any way.
I was afraid that — after everything that happened the last time I was here, after Dad's death, after my two-year absence — Rusty's house might've drastically changed. But it still looks the same, like it's never been formally introduced to the new millennium, all avocado-green appliances and outdated couches and dusty, taxidermized animal heads. In the kitchen, the edge of which is just visible from my perch, I see the ancient wooden table that's always functioned as a landing strip for unopened mail, car keys, beach towels and Solo cups. Rusty would clear it all to the side in the evenings — with a giant swipe of the back of his forearm — to make room for boisterous, legendary games of Spades. My gaze roams back to the living room, to a picture of Dad and me on Thanksgiving, several years back. To a framed invitation to my eighth-grade violin recital. And, most notably, to the lucky bamboo plant Dad gave Rusty.
A sudden pang pierces the hollow of my chest. I blink a couple of times. My vision blurs and clears. Dad was ridiculously superstitious. I used to find St. Christopher statues wedged in his glove box and sand dollars dotting the house. I was gifted with rabbit's-foot keychains, lucky-penny clocks and horseshoes in all colors and sizes. This bamboo plant — it was Dad's Christmas gift to Rusty a few years ago. Currently, it's sitting on a small, round table by the front door, looking droopy and ignored. "Have you been watering that?" I blurt, pointing to the plant. There are so many questions I should've asked Rusty — Why did it take you two years to sign my guardianship papers? Why didn't you come to Dad's funeral? Why haven't you even called me? — and yet here I've opened by grilling him on his horticultural skills.
Rusty leans back on the couch, kicking his legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankle. His smile is back full-force, and the entire living room seems brighter because of it. "Huh? The bamboo?" He peels off his hat and scratches his head, nearly taking out a lamp in the process. "Yeah. Of course I water it. Every other week, I s'pose? Once a month?"
And the state of Florida thinks it's a good idea to leave me in his care.
Still, though, Sarah is serious and respectful as she hands several papers to Rusty, who holds them out as far as his arm will allow, squinting. He needs glasses, but he's always despised wearing them. Most people look ridiculous when they squint. Rusty just looks more like Rusty. And as I sit there, watching him read the guidelines for my care, I realize just how much I've missed him over the past couple of years. But then Sarah says something to him, and he laughs, full and rich, like things are completely normal, and I think about all those nights I spent in foster care. Like a reflex, I turn away from him.
Something you probably should know: I got kicked out of my first foster home.
All right, so that's a smidge theatric. It isn't as though I was acting up or cussing or doing drugs, or anything. My foster parents didn't toss me to the curb, my suitcase flying out behind me. And the truth of the matter is that I actually liked Heather and Thomas Danielson, my first foster parents, who were perfectly nice and kind and friendly.
Who I did not like was their twelve-year-old son, Phillip.
Now, I'm just going to come on out and say it: there's nobody meaner than a twelve-year-old boy. In fact, I'm reasonably certain that somewhere in a psychology journal, there's a chapter revealing a scientific study that quite explicitly states that twelve-year-old boys are — and I might be paraphrasing here — spawns of the devil. They have an uncanny ability to find the one thing you're sensitive about — the one thing you're aware is your very worst feature — and then tease you about it mercilessly.
Like, they make fun of you honestly.
This is a trademark move. It's virtually unavoidable, because what they are saying is true. And how can you argue with the truth? In my case, I'd probably lived with the Danielsons for a day, tops, when Phillip started in on my largish nose.
Can you smell what's for dinner tomorrow?
Does that thing influence the tides?
Stop breathing up all the air in the room.
Here we are, just the three of us.
Everyone take cover: she's gonna blow.
And so on and so forth. He was relentless. Keep in mind that I'd just lost my dad. My mind was a tangle of what had happened with Owen the last time I was in New Harbor. I was living in a house with virtual strangers. I felt like a tree that had been uprooted and then stuffed back into the ground in a foreign country, where everyone spoke a different language and ate weird foods. I won't go into details, but eventually Phillip just wore on me until I snapped.
I lasted a whopping three weeks.
After that, I lived with the Marios, where I rode out the rest of my time. The Marios lived smack in the middle of Tampa in a five-story condo development, of which Mr. Mario was the super. So I dubbed him "Super Mario," which is probably the laziest nickname ever.
The Marios were sympathetic and soft-spoken and keen on giving me whatever I needed. Thing is, I wanted something they couldn't give. I longed for the life I used to have. I wanted this one memory of sitting on the couch in Rusty's living room. On my lap was a plate of pizza, which I ate while Rusty and Dad, on either side of me, watched a baseball game, lulled by the sounds of the game and the garlicky smell of pizza sauce and the weight of the thick sea air. After a few minutes, Rusty became bored with the game and took a giant bite of my pizza. Sorry, he said, though he was smiling. I jabbed him with my elbow, pretending to be annoyed. Dad laughed and stretched an arm over the top of the couch, squeezing my shoulder. It is such a normal memory — totally ordinary, actually — but even so, we were more a family then than ever.
Now, years later, as I sit on that same worn plaid couch, I realize that I know exactly what I want, because, once upon a time, it was mine.
It's the middle of the night, I'm glaringly awake, and I have just one prevailing thought. Maybe it's more of an observation than a thought, but regardless, there's only one of them.
This is early June in Florida, after all, so while the rest of the free world is enjoying cookouts and camping trips and backyard croquet, Floridians are walking around on the surface of the sun.
For the first hour, thinking about one thing is sort of heavenly, because there are many unpleasant thoughts I'm currently avoiding. But after a while, my one thought becomes so dominant and so miserable that I swing my legs to the floor and sit on the edge of the futon, which, for the record, is also uncomfortable.
As far as I can tell, the futon was part of a room-renovation project that never actually came to fruition. Gone are the bed and the dressers and the lamps that used to clutter this room. Now it boasts a futon, a television, a desk and a mini fridge. And that's it. Most girls would've chosen to sleep in the other spare room, which hosts real furniture with a real bed. Not me. Nope. I claimed the futon room immediately and without deliberation. And to fully understand the brilliance of this, you'd probably need a PhD in The Science of Horrible Mistakes.
Hoping the living room is cooler, I pad down the hall, where I find Rusty's cat, Lenny. I do not actually notice him lying there, not until I step on him and he hisses at me. Scraggly and muscly and enormous, Lenny is a rescue. Not a rescue as in We need to find this fluffy, adorable kitty a new home so he can brighten someone's day — a rescue as in We'd better get this cat adopted ASAP, before he goes Shawshank and starts picking off all the other cats.
According to Rusty, Lenny is a "bobcat mix," though I suspect the only thing he's mixed with is another bobcat. His defining characteristic is his long, prickly, above-the-eye whiskers that function as eyebrows, which effectively express his dislike for mankind. Due to the fact that Lenny has a nasty habit of rummaging around in the neighbors' trash cans, he's restricted to the house.
As in: house arrest.
So he's miserable and foul-tempered and despondent, and I figure it's only a matter of time before he pulls out a sharpened toothbrush and crams it into my neck, prison-style.
"Sorry," I whisper to him as I walk past. "I didn't know you were there." No clue why I explain myself to him. It just seems like the right thing to do.
Rusty is asleep on the couch, lit up in the bluish light cast from the TV, his Stetson pulled low over his face — like he's napping against a tree out on the prairie while his sheep graze around him.
To be clear, Rusty is as much a cowboy as that guy in the Village People.
Folding my arms across my chest, I watch him sleep for a moment. The two of us hardly spoke after Sarah left, and when we did, it certainly wasn't about anything of substance. But then, we've never talked about anything serious in all our lives, so maybe it makes sense that every time I start to ask him for explanations, my words lump up in my throat. Now, though, with him asleep, and without my initial shock at being here, I can almost pretend that this whole thing isn't going to turn out badly. That maybe he actually wants me here. He came for me, after all. Which is something, even though I don't know what prompted it — whether his guilt finally got the best of him or he just grew tired of Sarah's emails and phone calls. Now that I'm here, my suitcase in my room and my violin propped against the desk, it will kill me if he walks away again.
Shaking my head to clear it, I slip outside to the front porch, where it feels maybe one-fiftieth cooler than it did in the house. The wooden porch slats are warm and familiar under my bare feet as I curl my palms around the banister and lean forward, turning my face to the sky. For what feels like the first time since I set foot in New Harbor, I exhale.
Excerpted from "The Leading Edge of Now"
Copyright © 2018 Marci Lyn Curtis.
Excerpted by permission of Kids Can Press Ltd..
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