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Authors: Mandy Mikulencak

Burn Girl (6 page)

BOOK: Burn Girl
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“I didn't mean it like that.”

His chest heaved with a large sigh. “Sorry. Guess I'm still defensive after my ‘interviews' with the social services people.” He used his fingers to put air quotes around the word “interviews.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let's say they were pretty thorough in checking out my background. Couldn't let some loser be your guardian.”

I hadn't given much thought to how social services tracked him down or what they'd talked about. When I'd made the decision to call the police after finding Mom's body, I'd been swept up in my own vortex of change. That same day I'd been assigned a foster family. Two days later I was enrolled at the high school. The day after that, I was in Jane's office for observation. I guess Frank had joined me under the microscope.

“So, they determined you weren't a loser? Even though you can't find a matching pair of socks?”

“They appreciated that I bathe and brush my teeth daily.”

“No doubt,” I said.

When he smiled, I got up from the kitchen chair and joined him on the sofa, aware that I'd been as tense as steel cable before.

“Back to your question about money …” he said.

“It's none of my business. You don't have to explain.”

“I don't mind. You should know.”

He said that Mom and he inherited a bunch of money after their parents died. “They had a lot of farm and ranch land, but Sarah and I couldn't manage it on our own. We sold it … for a good price. Let's just say I've invested wisely these past twenty years.”

Frank didn't look like he had a lot of money. I pictured him living frugally in his Airstream, splurging on books instead of clothes. How expensive could Carhartts and T-shirts be? He didn't have a wife or kids to spend money on, but now I wondered what he might have been saving that money for and what plans I might have derailed.

“So Mom got half of the money?”

“Yeah, she got half. But it didn't last long.”

Frank's shoulders slumped as he looked at the floor. I regretted that I'd put him on the spot.

“You don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to.”

“Nah, it's okay,” he said. “It was just a very painful time in my life. And in your mom's. We both made bad choices.”

He described how my mother squandered her inheritance in less than two years. She'd hooked up with former high-school classmates who squatted in abandoned houses and gladly accepted her money to fund their drug habits.

“I literally kidnapped her and brought her home on several occasions,” he said. “But she just ran back to the junkies. She said they cared about her more than I did.”

I knew exactly what he meant. Too many times I'd felt Mom cared more about who could supply her next high. Those ever-changing, transient friends were more like family to her than I could ever be.

These memories were almost too much to absorb, so I left the room with the pretense of making some tea. Frank grabbed a bag of chips and ate them mindlessly, handful after handful, while I sat at the far end of the sofa, sipping the tasteless water and wondering if I dared ask any more questions about Mom's past.

My hand shook so I placed the hot mug on the floor near the sofa. “Mom was on drugs back then?”

“You look surprised,” he said.

“No … it's just … I thought my stepfather turned her on to them.”

Frank downed his beer quickly. “I should've tried harder. Back then, I mean.” His full mustache almost hid the quivering of his lip.

I didn't know how to feel about this remorse bubbling up after twenty-plus years. It seemed out of place for someone who hadn't seen his sister in so long. Still, I didn't need Frank to process his shit in front of me.

“We can't fool ourselves into thinking we had any control over her,” I said.

“How old are you again?” His smile was weaker now.

I'd figured out a long time ago that I couldn't change her actions. All I could do was manage the chaos that surrounded us to protect us in whatever way I could.

“Do you know how Mom ended up in Albuquerque?”

“I don't know when she moved. I couldn't take any more of the lies so I cut her out of my life. For good. Guess that's why she didn't tell me about you.”

“Well, I didn't know I had an uncle. That makes us even.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said.

We sat without talking for a couple of minutes before I spoke again. “Could I ask you why you wanted to help bury Mom? I mean, I thought the funeral home handled stuff like that.”

“It's kind of a ritual in our family,” he said. “That's what my parents did at my grandparents' funerals. And I did it for Mom and Dad too. I guess it's a more personal way of saying good-bye.”

Frank got a faraway look in his eyes. I cleared my throat to end the awkward silence.

Without looking at me, he grabbed the book he'd been reading earlier. I took it as a sign we wouldn't be talking about Mom or funerals or anything more that night. He couldn't answer all my questions anyway. I'd never know who my real dad was, or why Mom and he didn't stay together, or how she hooked up with Lloyd. She'd deprived me of all those answers.

“Think I'll watch something on my laptop. Don't feel like reading.” I sloughed off the afghan and made my way to the opposite side of the trailer.

Frank looked up from his book. “I'm not going to buy you a TV so you'll like me more.”

“Whatever. I can tough it out.” As I shut my door, I heard him laugh.

CHAPTER 6

Over the next few weeks, Frank and I eased awkwardly into daily routines that sometimes clicked and sometimes tested our tempers. We both had zero experience in our new roles of guardian and orphan.

This morning, he blocked the door to the trailer, making me late for school. “What did I say to upset you?” he demanded.

“I said I didn't need any money for lunch, but you kept pushing it,” I said.

“All I said was that you didn't have to borrow from Mo anymore. That I was happy to give you spending money.” His cheeks flared and I could tell he was struggling not to raise his voice.

“It's fine, Frank. Really. Just let me go to school.”

He followed me out the door and into the yard. “We'll talk later then?”

I nodded and waved him off. His hovering was suffocating at times, but I had to remind myself that for the first time in my life, I was not worried about money and how many odd jobs it'd take me to earn enough for groceries.

Mo met me at lunch. It was the one time of day we had time to talk since the only class we had together was American history. Today she was worried I'd back out of trying out for choral. I couldn't remember why I'd let her talk me into it in the first place. Now I sat with my arms wrapped around my waist, sure I was going to throw up before my audition, which was just forty minutes away.

“I don't know any of the students in choral,” I said. “I wish you could be there.”

“Cody from your English lit class is a member.”

“He's in the choral society?” An odd mix of fear and excitement tightened my chest.

“Yeah, so you
do
know someone. Stop being so nervous.” She flicked a piece of her sandwich at me and I batted it away.

Cody and I had spoken only a handful of times, mostly about homework assignments or other students who clearly hadn't done their reading before class. But he was one of the few people who'd been openly nice to me since I was forced to go back to school.

Mo usually called him “the hot blind dude” because she always described guys by their looks first: height, build, eye color, hunk factor. I saw so much more: the sureness of his steps in navigating the halls and classrooms at school, the way he'd bite his lower lip for an instant before he flashed a smile, the long strands of dishwater blond hair that fell across his forehead.

More importantly, he'd figured out a way to fit in despite being different and almost made it look effortless. I wondered if Cody's confidence was partly an act, and if he sometimes still felt as alien as I did.

At the choral audition, a group of ten or twelve students sat at the back of the music room, most too busy talking to notice I'd entered. They'd all seen me at one point or another during my first couple of months at school, so my disfigurement wasn't likely to cause odd looks and whispers. The absence of stares almost unnerved me more.

A girl with a hot-pink stripe in her hair called me over. Claire. She was also in my English class and clearly a friend of Cody, who was sitting next to her.

“Have a seat,” she said, patting a chair.

“Good luck, and don't be nervous.” Cody leaned across Claire's lap as if his words wouldn't reach me otherwise.

Miss Browning, the choir director, was petite and unassuming, but with a voice that had a wicked range. When she entered the classroom, everyone stopped talking. She motioned for me to join her by the piano before she spoke.

“This is Arlie Betts,” she said. “She's joining us a little late in the year, but I'm sure we can bring her up to speed in time for the community concert in a couple of months.”

Miss Browning had stumbled upon me singing with Mo in the gym parking lot one evening after a basketball game. She and Mo had double-teamed me, badgering me until I agreed to try choral.
Try
, I emphasized to Mo. As director, Miss Browning had final approval on who got in, but she liked the group to weigh in concerning the elite show choir. And that meant an audition.

Now, standing in the practice room, my throat dry with panic, I almost hated Mo for her zealousness in trying to make me fit in. Not that she resented being my only friend, but she worried I wasn't interested in connecting with anyone else.

I spotted Brittany, the girl who hated me. Mo hadn't warned me that she too was in choral. I eyed the door, my escape should I really mess things up. I pictured myself running toward it in slow motion, then kicking it open with one push and running down the hall.

“So, are you ready to sing for us?” The choral director sat at the piano, waiting for me to gather my wits. She had the sheet music we'd chosen earlier in the week when we practiced the number. We'd settled on “Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perri, a song that would showcase my vocals. She'd done everything in her power to make sure I understood how much she believed in me. Her attention made me uncomfortable, yet here I was, sweating profusely and worried that I would disappoint her somehow.

I stared past the faces of the students in front of me, purposely blurring my vision and blocking out everything around me, including Cody. To squelch my nerves, I kept telling myself none of it mattered: not Miss Browning, not these students, and definitely not Brittany.

Being afraid of singing in front of a group was laughable considering all I'd been able to handle in the past. Like answering our apartment door at 2 a.m. when my stepdad's dealer friends and junkies came begging for a fix. Or hiding in a closet, clutching Lloyd's handgun, when an angry gang member stopped by to dispute the size of a meth delivery.

Even though I knew the song backward and forward, I started out shaky, my throat catching at the end of the line:
And don't you know I'm not your ghost anymore?
But then my voice grew stronger and stronger until I gave it my all during the chorus.

And who do you think you are?

Runnin' 'round leaving scars
.

After a few more lines, I dared to look at the students. Most were smiling, moving their heads in time with the music. Cody swayed from side to side almost imperceptibly. His full lips stayed fixed in a soft smile for the entire song.

As I neared the end, my vocals were overshadowed by clapping and whistling so I just let the last few lines of lyrics drop. Miss Browning mouthed “Good job” as she too clapped.

I mumbled “thanks” a few times and sat down in the chair Claire had saved for me.

“Looks like we have ourselves a new mezzo-soprano, although I bet you could do alto too,” she said. “Hope you can handle the classical stuff.” She gave me a serious stare. Then a huge smile broke across her face.

“Yeah … I mean, I'll try my best,” I said.

“You'll have to do better than that,” Brittany said. “We're a competition choir. You have to look good and sing good.”

“It's sing
well
, not sing good. And stop being such a bitch.” Cody whispered the words, but everyone heard him anyway. Most chuckled, which made Brittany's face turn a raging red.

“Don't think we need a vote, right, Miss Browning?” Claire asked. “Arlie's in as far as I'm concerned.”

The rest of practice was a literal blur. My eyes teared so badly that I kept my head down. I thought I'd feel only relief after finishing the tryout number, but emotion pounded in my heart and head. I wanted to be part of this group, but I wanted to run away. And Brittany. I already had to suffer through calculus class with her. Now, she threatened to ruin something good in my life.

Thinking about her and the audition was too much at once. When Miss Browning dismissed us, I was the first one out the door even though Claire and Cody called for me to wait up.

I met Mo by her car and asked her to drive me straight to Frank's.

“What's wrong? What happened at choir?”

I was crying so hard I couldn't find enough breath to talk.

“You're freaking me out. Tell me what's wrong,” she said.

“I did great.” My sobbing muffled my words. “I mean, they all said I did great. Well, except one, but I'm in. I … I'm just a little overwhelmed.”

Mo threw her arms around me, shouting her congratulations. Her enthusiasm buoyed me instantly.

“I told you they'd think you were awesome.”

For a moment, I remembered what it was like before the explosion, before people stared, before the ugly words and awkward silences. Today, I wasn't my scar. The students had listened to my music; they'd listened to
me
. Just plain Arlie. Not poor, disfigured Arlie. Not Arlie, the homeless girl whose mother killed herself.

BOOK: Burn Girl
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