Meg had been sleeping when something woke her, something slight as the scratch of a mouse. She came into the kitchen to find her stepmother standing at the stove, writing a note. It was the middle of the night, and there was only the stove light on. Meg wondered how Alison could write in the dark or why she wanted to. Slowly she took things in: Alison's shoulder bag was hanging on her shoulder; she was fully dressed; in her left hand under the purse, she dangled car keys. Meg thought, I shouldn't have said there wasn't enough money for the pizza. Why did I tell her?
Alison said, "I just wrote you a note. Should have guessed you'd get the vibrations and wake up."
Meg felt embarrassed because she wore only a thin T-shirt. She reached for the note and crossed her arms over her chest while she read. The pose made her feel even shyer. She didn't want to cry.
I have made up my mind and I am going for good. Here is what you need to do:
Meg stopped reading. "But you just got back. Susannah said you were going to start work again."
"I came for some things."
"Oh." Meg saw there was luggage piled by the front door. She turned back to the note.
For old times sake give me a couple of days start and then you go to the school authorities and tell them you need foster care.
Meg's heart sank. "Where will you be going?"
"I can't tell you that. Someone might get it out of you."
"For how long? Is this about a job?" Meg asked, but she saw by Alison's face, it wasn't about a job.
Alison said, "I have to get going. I didn't want to get into it."
"But—" She wondered if there was something terrible she didn't know. "Why go in the middle of the night? Why not start after breakfast?"
"This is best."
Her stepmother moved toward the suitcases—two big tweedy things plus an ample weekender and a smaller satchel, all of which looked like the kind of luggage rich people carried. And a cardboard box. In the satchel, the round hairbrush was sticking up. Funny. Meg had heard the note-writing, not the packing.
"You might change your mind," Meg said gently. It had happened before.
"We could wait a bit before doing anything."
Alison hesitated. "I don't know. I made up my mind. I'm no good at this. I'm not cut out for it. I never counted on it when I met your father. It was bad enough there were four of you to worry about. I don't know why I stayed so long."
Maybe Alison had loved them a little, in spite of herself, Meg thought, even though the initial staying had more to do with their father's insurance and the house they'd owned—until Alison sold it—than it did with them.
"I wouldn't wait much past three days, you hear. Get yourselves some foster care. Okay? Just wait a little for my sake."
"You'll call?" Meg asked. "Just to—" She didn't say the rest about being sure before they did anything.
"Best we forget we ever knew each other," Alison said softly.
Meg sat down on the kitchen chair, hitting harder than she intended. The hard jolt the chair gave her spine seemed the mark of some sort of defeat.
Alison took the note from her, crumpled it, and began to throw it in the trash. Then she paused and put it in her purse. "They'll ask you questions. Just keep saying you don't know. You could get me in a whole bunch of trouble, so just say the last you knew I met somebody, I left, went you don't know where. That's the simplest. I did well by you guys; I tried, anyway." Alison fumbled to get her checkbook from her purse. She searched for a pen, finally found one, and wrote a check.
Meg looked at the tan mules her stepmother favored, toeless and with a narrow heel. Alison wore a short brown clingy dress with a little black sweater. She always tried to look like a kid. Their father had wanted to get them a mother, but he ended up getting them a person who was trying to be a teenager.
Alison put the check on the hall table and came back to the kitchen. Suddenly there was something that passed for a hug and kiss. Meg threw her arms around her stepmother and held on tight. There'd been plenty of tension between them. Even she couldn't explain the hug. It was just that anybody she ever knew, she kind of loved. "Will you be okay?" Meg asked.
Her question started Alison crying. "Don't . . . don't. I'm counting on you to do the right thing. You understand? Let me be and then get yourselves some parents."
Meg would have liked to be angry with Alison, but the truth was, she understood her. Alison hadn't bargained on any of this, four kids and, the last two years, no man in her life. She'd craved romance and got hard-knocks reality. Alison was going to meet a man—that was clear from the high excitement and triumph underneath her apologies.
Alison broke the embrace and picked up the luggage—enough luggage to hold just about everything she owned.
Meg went to reach for one of the tweed bags, but Alison said, "No. My God. No. You can't do that, too." Meg stood helpless as her stepmother went to the car once, then twice. Finally Alison put the last piece of luggage and the cardboard box in the trunk. She kissed her fingers in farewell, got behind the wheel, and started up the car, but she didn't start out right away. The moment stretched to three minutes.
Meg watched, thinking, I've done it, I've turned her around.
Alison put the old Civic into gear. Still she didn't move.
The stars were visible, and a half moon washed the closely parked cars in an eerie light. The car motor made its familiar coughing sound. Suddenly, the car and its driver were gone.
The night was chilly. Meg didn't put on a robe or a sweater. She didn't go back to bed. She sat still at the kitchen table for a long time, hearing the memory of the car driving away and understanding why Alison went in the night. License plate. Alison wanted to get far enough away that nobody could find her if Meg rebelled and called the police.
Meg thought about how to tell the others in the morning that their stepmother had come back for a few days only to take off again and this time it was for good.
The check sat on the "hall table"—it was really just redwood outdoor furniture, although it was nicely made—nearest the front door used for schoolbooks and mail. Meg was the one who found the table outside Keystone Plumbing, on sale for ten bucks, and she thought it could substitute for one about the same size her stepmother had sold when they downsized from a house in Greenfield to this little saltbox. "Only ten bucks, and sturdy," she'd come home saying, and Alison told her she sounded like an old woman.
The comment stung. Meg did not want to be an old woman, but she supposed she was. She'd always been the caretaker of the other kids, but in many ways, too, of her mother when she was alive, her stepmother, and even her father. She wanted to be like . . . not like her classmates, exactly, but like some kids her age. Pretty, laughing, music-playing kids. Old woman. Her schoolbooks were stacked neatly. Her class was giving book reports. She was doing A Tale of Two Cities tomorrow, one of her father's favorite books. She was finished preparing, had been for a week. Math done. Geography done.
Meg got up and looked at the check. Forty bucks. She could make it on that for a long time. Alison had no sense of money—she had told Susannah to call for a pizza today, and all she had to pay for it was five dollars and something. The man had been nice, letting them have it.
She put on the television so low, there were no discernible words, only a murmur. Some kind of community-access talk program. She tried to guess what they were talking about so earnestly. Then a movie in which people raised their eyebrows every time they spoke, but she couldn't hear the words of that either and couldn't read the lips and didn't turn up the sound. After a while she let the light of the television flicker over her like firelight. She had the idea that if she concentrated on the thought hard enough, her stepmother would turn around and come back. She was gone three days the first time she left, almost a week the second time. Meg's vision was clear, a dream with a sound track. She'd hear the unmistakable sound of the cranky used has-been car, and she would go to the window and welcome Alison back.
At about half past four in the morning, she took her school copy of the Dickens novel from the table and read certain sections all over again, just because she liked them.
She read all night, letting the book take her again.
THE NEXT MORNING, MEG SAT in her English class, floating, looking out the school window, thinking: She was a good caretaker; if only some agency would give her money, she could keep the family going just fine. She had to get after Joel sometimes, but when she tried to imagine being without him, any of them, she couldn't stand it. She knew exactly how Susannah's hair curled when it dried, she knew Joel's moods, she knew when Laurie's eyes would close in front of the TV. And they wouldn't be okay without her, they just wouldn't.
"It's a story of human frailty," the English teacher was saying. Ms. Blair liked to be dramatic. She had matte black hair that she always pulled back tight into a knot. Most days she wore scarves and big earrings.
Images of her own mother came to Meg. Little bits. The way she had moved, as if she were onstage. Lighting a cigarette, blowing out a longstream of smoke, putting the cigarette down in an ashtray. Fingers through her hair, a hip out, her sassy pose. And pretty, kind of like Alison, but with a lot more attitude. "Troubled," her father had said once, when they talked late into the night. He never said crazy. Troubled, unhappy, those were his words. Joel remembered her. Laurie hardly did. Susannah didn't. Brilliant. Their mother was brilliant, everybody said so. Read all kinds of things, was always in a fever, and not too nice to their father who was plenty intelligent but not smart enough for her—not brilliant.
Well, their mother had given them brains, anyway. Their father had given them kindness. He used to say something of the sort, sitting up at night, talking with Meg. She had to agree about her father anyway. He had had pained, gentle eyes, a soft voice. He never hurt anyone.
"Did you see that in it, the humanness?" the teacher, Ms. Blair, was asking Jordan Zugaro, the boy who had done the first report.
His answer was an unpleasant snorting laugh meant to let his classmates know how stupid the teacher's questions were.
"What do the rest of you think? Rob? Pete? Any answers? John?"
The boys rustled in their corrals, kicking at chair bottoms and book bags.
The teacher said, "I give up. Meg? Let's have your report now."
Meg stood and went to the front of the room. She wasn't sure her voice was going to work. On top of that, her report was eight times longer than anyone else's. But she began and she persisted, explaining the plot, reading sections, and then telling her reaction to the novel. When she looked up, the sea of puzzled faces threw her. She wanted to say something else, something different. I'm Meg. I'm falling apart here.
Ms. Blair turned to the class. "What did you think of Meg's report?"
"Long!" one boy said, and several laughed.
Then there was a tangle of voices saying that they did not want to be expected to match it and that it was more than they thought they were supposed to do.
"It was excellent," Ms. Blair said quietly. "You liked Sidney Carton? Why? Because he sacrificed himself?"
"I liked him even before he sacrificed himself."
Ms. Blair smiled.
Finally class was over and everyone hurried out to lunch. The teacher called Meg back into the room. "Look, Meg, you can't stay in this school system next year. It's ridiculous. You're so far ahead of the others. You need AP classes."
"Well, maybe, I guess."
"I have to intervene," Ms. Blair said with all the drama she could muster. "I can't stand the waste. Have your mother call me."
Meg nodded slightly and left. Then she stood at the fringes of the cafeteria line, stretching, looking at the free meal, hoping Joel and Laurie and Susannah would listen to her and eat everything coming to them so she could stretch that forty dollars for as long as they needed. In front of her, thick brown gravy sat like mud over ground meat. Memory conjured the taste of cheap beef and salt and fat, making her mouth water and her stomach heave at the same time. She chose it because the other choice was tubes of pasta with red sauce, and they ate pasta all the time.
She ducked toward a corner booth and opened a book because she wasn't in the mood to talk to anybody. If she talked, she might cry; she ate her lunch, pretending to study, while other kids played the game of constantly shifting seats.
She managed to make it through lunch and was passing the main office on her way to Algebra when the counselor, Ms. Stephanyak, leaned out, chomping on a carrot, and called her over. "How's your mother doing?"
Meg tried to hit a level, ordinary tone of voice. "Okay. Working hard," she said.
"I'll try calling again. I haven't been able to get hold of her. You don't have your answering machine on."
"We don't have one."
"Ms. Blair was just talking to me about you. You're doing very well. Time to talk to your mother about some options."
She imagined herself blurting it all out suddenly. You need to report that we need a foster home. Instead she said, "Thanks. I'll have her call you. I have to get to class right now." Why couldn't things just go on and on? They always had.
A voice behind her said, "They got nothing better to do." It was Patrice who caught up with her. Patrice was large and black, with soft eyes and oiled-down hair. She was good in school, as Meg was. "Can't wait to get out of here."
"I don't mind it, I guess." Meg looked at the old walls and lockers, wondering where she would end up, where her siblings would end up.
Then she and Patrice were at the Algebra classroom and they parted to take their assigned seats. Somehow Meg answered correctly what a fulcrum was, and replied, when asked, what result she'd got on certain workbook problems. Which, it turned out, she'd done correctly. The other half of her mind was on how she would catch Laurie after school, have Laurie walk Susannah home slowly while she rushed over to East Ohio Street to cash the check and ran back to catch up with them. She worked out shopping lists in her head. Forty dollars. A math problem of sorts.
Finally school was over. Finally she got to the bank.
The only available teller, a tough-looking woman with a cap of nappy hair and a jacket with epaulets, looked at Meg suspiciously, turned the piece of paper over a couple of times, and took on a very official tone. "You tell this person with the account—I remember her . . . Is she your mother?"
It wasn't exactly true, but Meg managed a nod.
"Tell her to come in. She has a low balance in the account and if she wants to get money out she needs to be the one to cash it because it would close out the account. And it needs to be signed here. You tellher to come in."
Meg said, "Thank you. I will."
She left the bank without anything. For a moment on her way home, she thought she heard her stepmother's car. But when she turned to look, it was just another rattletrap.
Meg took her backpack into the bedroom and changed out of her school clothes. She heard Joel come into the house, his sounds. Good. She had to sit them down and talk to them.
Nothing in the cupboards. No, not quite true. Three slices of old bread, a pat of butter. It would have to do.
"Are you changing clothes?" she called out.
"Yeah," Joel called back.
Laurie came up from the basement and began sweeping the kitchen floor. "For once!" she said, "he remembers to change his clothes." She was three years younger than Meg. She had reported earlier that detergent was low. Laurie's glasses slipped down on her nose all the time and they perched there now, giving her a quizzical look. "We're out of everything."
"There's a half inch of dish detergent in the bottle," Meg suggested. "You could make that go far."
Laurie sighed and nodded.
"She's sitting on the basement steps, drawing."
They heard Joel come to sit in the living room.
She went into the living room and saw his two books on the table in front of him, saw that he was far down in spirits, as if he knew already. He opened one of his books and sat back, reading.
"I need to talk to everybody," she said. "Could you get Suse? Could we all come in here?"
"Susannah!" Laurie called. Susannah clattered up the steps. It was clear to Meg they were all expecting something. They knew, but they didn't want to know. Laurie sat on the couch and Susannah scrunched up next to her.
"Did you eat a lot at the cafeteria?"
They all said they had.
"That's good because . . ."
"There isn't anything," Laurie said. "Nothing."
Meg looked at them evenly. "Things are bad. Things are real bad." They waited. "Alison left for good," she said at last. "I was thinking she was going to stay this time. But she only came back to get her things. She's gone."
"Where?" was all Joel asked.
"I don't know."
"She'll be back," Laurie said miserably. "Even though we don't want her."
Meg paused. "She took all her clothes. Really everything."
The other three waited patiently for more. They did not seem particularly surprised.
"I'm glad she's gone," Laurie said. "I don't miss her at all. She's a whacko."
"Well, I know but . . . here's the thing. One way or another, she brought a little money into the house. We're stuck without that."
"She sold our house," Laurie muttered. "Where's all that money?"
"What does she expect us to do?" Laurie asked.
"I tried to cash one of her checks today, but it didn't work. She never did understand money. What Alison said . . . she told me we need to turn ourselves in. She wanted me to do it in a couple of days, but I . . . could go to the school office tomorrow if you all want."
Joel had put down his book at the phrase turn ourselves in.
Laurie asked tersely, "How?"
"I suppose we could go to the police, too. If we hang on through tomorrow, as she wants us to, we could call the police anytime on the weekend."
Joel said, "No. There has to be something we can do."
Susannah's lip was trembling. Laurie soothed her by smoothing her hair and saying, "Shh. We'll figure it out."
Joel muttered, "She spent all our money. She could have gotten something for us, welfare, why didn't she?"
Meg said, "I don't know. She didn't like agencies."
Laurie said, "We're better off without her," but she said it mostly to Susannah.
"Well," Meg explained, "she was right about one thing. We need help. We can't make it for long."
"But we don't want foster parents," Joel said.
"I know," Meg said.
"Do you?" Laurie asked. "Want to end up with strangers?"
Meg said, "Nobody ever does. Ever. No, I don't want it."
"Don't want it," Joel said, raising a hand, as if voting.
"Don't either," Laurie said, raising her hand. And of course Susannah followed them.
"We're fine the way we are," Laurie said brightly. "Alison never did anything except smoke and look for boyfriends."
"We have no money," Meg cried out. "And we need food."
Joel went silent. Laurie, on the other hand, was energized by the problem. "School is out in three weeks, right? We could babysit nights for now and babysit all the daytime in summer. I could. Add it up. We don't need to give ourselves up."
Meg felt herself falter. She'd been thinking, if she lied about her age, she could possibly get hired somewhere. She looked straight at Joel. "What do you want to do?"
"We all have to get work," he said, "something, at least until school is out, right? That's only three weeks."
"There's rent," Meg said. "And utilities."
"We can try it. We can try for a couple of days anyway, can't we?"
They did the dishes and tidied the house until six.
They sat and read, all in the same room. At seven o'clock, when the hunger was fierce, they made three pieces of toast and split each piece four ways—twelve pieces divided by four.
They were watching television at eight, but the volume couldn't disguise Susannah's stomach growl. Meg suddenly couldn't stand it and she sprang up. "Be back in a minute," she said.
She crossed the street to the pizza shop. Yes, the same man was in there. Cleaning things up.
"I'm so glad you're still here," she said breathlessly.
"Just turned the ovens off. Sorry."
To her great distress, she felt herself starting to choke up. "I need to get a job. I can learn anything. I can cook, clean. I could definitely make pizza or work the counter. A couple of hours even would help."
The man started looking around. He took a drink from a bottle of beer. "I can't," he said. "You're too young. Some rough people come in here. How old are you?"
She wanted to lie. But she told the truth. "Almost fourteen. I won't tell. I noticed you work long hours and I thought maybe you might want a break."
"You hit that right. I was sneaking out early tonight."
"I could work for you," she said breathlessly.
"The job isn't mine to give."
A trick of the light made him look like he might cry. He had beautiful eyes, a light blue, and they seemed to open up like the sky. She turned to the door.
"Here," he said. "You're in luck. This has been sitting around for hours. Never got picked up."
Her eyes widened. Was he just giving it?
"And, just a second. Here's some dough. Some cheese. You'd know what to do with these? Your parents would?"
"Yes. Oh, yes, thanks. When I get some money—"
"Are you kidding? These are throwaways."
Meg ran home. She hadn't gotten the job she most wanted, but there were other places she could try tomorrow. As soon as she entered the house, she felt the other three dive toward her.
"Food!" Joel said.
"We can just have it?" Laurie asked. "What did you say?"
Excerpted from THE ODDSt by KATHLEEN GEORGE
Copyright © 2009 by Kathleen George
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.