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I had been chasing the Thomas twins around their house for a half hour, begging them to put on their clothes, when the garage door whined up. Their mother was home.
“Guys, come here,” I shouted as I flung myself onto the carpet. Five seconds later, I had two tiny bare butts bouncing on my belly. “Gotcha.” I sat up, locked my arms around their squirmy bodies, and shifted them onto my lap. I’d just wiggled a pair of Pull-Ups onto both boys when Mrs. Thomas walked in the door.
She hugged them as she smiled at me. “Were my little men good today?”
“Absolutely adorable.” I took the wad of cash she held out and shoved it into my pocket. “Thanks.”
“Brooke?” She squinted at the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. “Can you babysit next Saturday morning? Eight to eleven?”
“Sure. See you then.” I kissed the twins on the tops of their heads and left. Once I got home, I locked up my bike in the backyard and collapsed into my hammock. A nap had just become my top priority. Eyes shut. Swaying in the breeze. Surrounded by the scent of roses.
A screen door slammed, followed by thuds across the deck and the soft swoosh of footsteps on the lawn. Maybe if I pretended not to be here, the footsteps would change direction.
“Brooke,” Mom said.
Guess not. “I’m hiding.”
“Not very well, since this was the first place I looked.”
I smiled drowsily without opening my eyes. “Are you saying I’m predictable?”
“Completely. How were the boys?”
“Busy. And naked.” I sighed. Loudly. In a way that made it obvious I would rather not be talking.
“It’s time to eat.”
“Now?” It couldn’t be any later than five p.m. I peered at her through half-closed eyes. “What about Jeff?”
“He’s home. We’re having fried chicken.”
Mom rarely fried chicken, even though it was one of my favorites. Too messy and unhealthy, which made today’s choice highly suspicious. “Why?”
“We’re holding a family meeting.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief.
I rolled from the hammock, my heartbeat jumping into overdrive. “About…?”
“Come and see.” She jogged back to the house, her blonde ponytail bouncing behind her.
A family meeting on a Friday in the middle of June? When nothing was going on? Mom and I had been a team long enough for me to know this meeting meant something big—and happy—for me.
Fighting off the burn of anticipation, I trailed her into the kitchen. The table looked gorgeous. Lace tablecloth. Roses in a vase. The “company” china. And not only had my only-cooks-from-scratch-under-duress mother made fried chicken, she’d added creamed potatoes and biscuits, too.
Oh, yeah. Something big. And there was only one thing it could be.
Jeff was holding Mom’s chair for her. When he was done, I inched around him.
“Hello, Brooke.” He held up his fist.
My stepfather and I had been fist-bumping for the whole time he’d been in my life. I’d hoped after their wedding that he would progress to hugging. But nine months later, I was still waiting. “Hi, Jeff.” I touched my fist to his and slid onto a chair.
It quickly became apparent that the two of them had a conspiracy going to keep me in suspense during the meal. We talked about ordinary stuff, like … our jobs. The weather. The Chicago Cubs’s chances of reaching the World Series. And after every topic, Mom and Jeff would smirk at each other and then me. Fine. I could survive on hope for a few more minutes.
As soon as they put down their forks, I pounced. “Okay, guys…?”
My stepfather’s phone buzzed.
Mom and I exchanged grins. Because of course. The best moments of my life were always interrupted before they happened. Like a hyper dog ruining the cookout for my ninth birthday. Or the hurricane that canceled my first dance recital. Or the badly placed candle that torched the decorations at Mom’s wedding to Jeff. At least tonight, the destruction of property wasn’t involved.
He glanced at the phone and then at my mother. “It’s Mei.” His ex-wife. He would have to answer, although his reluctance to delay the family meeting was kind of sweet.
Mom sniffed. “Go ahead.”
Jeff accepted the call. “Mei, what is it?” He narrowed his eyes, then frowned. Rocketing from his chair, he left the kitchen and disappeared into the den.
“I wonder what she wants,” I said.
“Me, too.” Mom covered the leftover potatoes with a piece of plastic wrap and carried them to the fridge. “Dessert?”
“Should we wait for Jeff?”
“Nope.” She added the p with a lot of attitude.
I reached for the biscuits. Might as well clean up, too.
Jeff was gone for ten minutes. Mom and I had already finished our peach cobbler when he returned. After slipping his phone into his pocket, he stood behind his chair, gripping the seat back. He looked uncertain. Hesitant. Two words I’d never thought of for my stepfather before.
My mother rose and crossed to his side. “What’s happened?”
“Mei has been having some health problems since she had her baby.” He shook his head as if dazed.
“The doctors want her to reduce her stress.”
Mom and I said in unison, “Natalie.”
He gave a sharp nod.
My stepsister and I chatted online often, and one of her favorite topics was her baby brother. But she’d never mentioned her mom being sick.
Jeff rubbed a hand over his nearly bald scalp. “Natalie is coming to live with us for a while.”
What? I stared at him in disbelief. Natalie would be living here? He’d invited her without checking?
Mom recovered first. “That will be … an adjustment.”
He wasn’t looking in my direction, which bought me a few seconds to control myself. Weekends with Natalie were usually good. But when she opposed something, she became the queen of difficult. Natalie was guaranteed to oppose this. “How long is a while?” My voice cracked on the last word.
“It’s undetermined. A month or two.”
Emotions flashed over my mother’s face in rapid succession. Concern. Sympathy. And something else that I couldn’t identify. “When will you pick her up?”
Mom and I looked at each other with widened eyes. That was too soon. There was hardly enough time to get the house ready. Or to get us ready.
“What else could I do, Jill? I couldn’t say no.”
“Of course you couldn’t, sweetheart. We’ll figure this out.”
He switched his gaze to me. “This isn’t what you expected for your summer.”
It certainly wasn’t. We’d been planning to have Natalie with us for two weeks in August, so I’d been mentally preparing for that. But tomorrow?
Jeff’s daughter had Asperger’s. She hadn’t learned to drive, didn’t cook, and couldn’t be left alone for very long. She had definite opinions about how her world should be organized, and she expected her family to provide it. Our summer would be consumed with making life easy for Natalie.
I could totally understand why she had to get out of there. I also understood that she had nowhere else to go, but it stung that Jeff hadn’t even asked. Mom and I would’ve done the right thing. Natalie was family.
Clutching my hands together in my lap, I pasted on a smile, as if everything were okay. “I’m with Mom. We’ll make it work.”
His answering smile was full of relief. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.” He kissed Mom’s forehead and took a step back. “I have a few details to puzzle through. If you need me, I’ll be in the workshop.”
“Wait,” I said in a rush. Jeff couldn’t leave yet. We had to go back to where we’d been when Mei interrupted. “We haven’t finished the family meeting.”
Mom and Jeff visibly flinched. They turned to each other, silent communication passing between them. He flexed his jaw. She winced. He nodded. She sighed.
When Jeff looked back at me, his gaze flickered with regret. “I’m sorry, Brooke. We’ll have to delay that discussion.” He strode to the back door. It clicked shut seconds later.
My mother slumped onto a chair.
Frustration twisted in my gut. They might not have used the word car, but it had to be the reason for the home-cooked meal and the smirks. After years of saving, I was only six thousand dollars away from my goal. I’d never asked for help, but tonight it seemed like they’d been about to offer.
I stared at my mother with enough intensity that she had to hear my thoughts begging her to look at me, but she was doing a pretty good job of resisting. “Mom?”
“Honey, I’m sorry, but we can’t do it now.”
She hadn’t needed to hear the question. The disappointment was crushing. “You were going to help me buy a car.”
“Yeah. A friend of Jeff’s offered us a good deal on a used vehicle.”
“A Ford Fiesta?” The perfect intersection of safe, efficient, and affordable.
“A Toyota RAV4.”
I blinked with shock. I’d planned on a Fiesta because it was a realistic goal. I’d dreamed about a RAV4, but always in secret. “How did you know?”
I swallowed hard. Jeff had noticed?
“He said you would get whiplash every time one drove by.” Mom sighed. “We thought we could cover the difference, but not now. Not with Jeff starting his own business and Natalie living here. Until we see how much they affect our finances, we need to hold off on obligating that kind of money.”
I wished I didn’t know how tantalizingly close I’d been. It was easier to live with dreams when they stayed out of reach. “We’ll have four people and two vehicles.”
“I know. It’ll be a mess.”
* * *
Even though Mom and Jeff had retired to their room hours ago, their lights were on. Mom must have had some details of her own “to puzzle through” with her husband.
I was too restless to sleep. A three-mile run, a soaking bath, my happy playlist—nothing worked.
Prowling around my room, my gaze landed on the nightstand. My scrapbook might help. I reached into the bottom drawer and lifted it out carefully, not wanting anything to spill out.
When I was younger, Mom had gone through a scrapbooking phase, where she’d memorialized everything about me through photos and bits of junk. When she lost interest, she gave me a leftover scrapbook. I’d been using it since as my secret journal. Just to be safe, I’d scrawled Fashion Ideas across the front. My mother wasn’t interested in fashion. She would never look inside.
I set my scrapbook on the bed and flipped it open. Taped to the last page was a tattered sheet of paper, a fourth grade assignment that I’d never thrown away. During American literature month, our language arts teacher had gushed over her favorite author, Louisa May Alcott, and asked us to think about one of her most famous quotes:
Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations …
The assignment was to list our aspirations and explain why we had chosen them. My classmates had raced to scribble item after item. Not me. I’d sat frozen at my desk, staring miserably at the blank page. Totally certain what my highest aspirations were. Equally certain there was no chance I would ever share them with a teacher or anyone else.
She’d stopped by my desk and tapped my paper with a bright red fingernail. “Can’t think of anything?”
“Try, Brooke. You don’t want a zero.”
I’d picked up a pencil and written in cursive:
Tap shoes—I’m tired of ballet
A corner bedroom with two windows—to see more of the world
The big red C at the top of the sheet was a faded reminder that the teacher hadn’t been impressed. What would she have thought if she’d seen the two items I’d added later that night, in the privacy of my room?
A dad—to love me
A sister—to be my best friend
I’d received the tap shoes for my next birthday. Not long after that, Mom and I moved to this town, into this house. My corner bedroom had two windows.
But the other two? I didn’t really have them yet. While the “step” part of stepdad and stepsister didn’t matter to me, apparently it did to them.
I hadn’t given up hope, though. It would change. Someday.
Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Langston