Authors: Amy Allgeyer
Albert Whitman & Company
To Hazel, Julie, Kristen, and Sarah,
who kept believing in me â¦
even those times when I stopped
Union Station is crisscrossed with spotlights, lit white against the dark DC sky. I step out of the car and wait for Iris's mom to pop the trunk. “You don't have to stay,” I say to Iris. “I'm okay by myself.”
We each grab one of my suitcases. Iris slams the trunk, and we set the luggage on the sidewalk in front of the art deco bus station.
“No way.” She untangles her sapphire bracelet from my luggage tag. “I won't get to see you for
long, and you think I'm going to give up my last few minutes of Liberty time?” She pulls me into a hug as her mom drives off to park the car. “I'm going to miss you, girl.”
My eyes sting a little, but I don't cry. I never cry. “I'm going to miss you too. Hugely much.”
“Seriously. When are you coming back?”
I open my backpack and riffle through the papers, looking for the ticket I printed online. I really hate that question. “It depends.” On whether the woman who gave birth to me is guilty or innocent. On whether her lawyers are crappy or decent. On whether she ends up getting life in prison or not. But I don't have to say those things. Iris already knows.
“Best-case scenario?” she prompts.
“It's fourteen months till the trial. After that â¦” Shrugging, I unfold the paper ticket and smooth out the wrinkles.
is printed across the center. Below that, it says
. All six letters are little knives to my soul.
“So if everything goes well, you'll be back just in time for graduation.” Iris gives me her famous grin, all wide eyes and pretty teeth. “Perfect timing, yeah?”
I know she's trying to cheer me up, but it's not working. How could it?
We head for the bus terminal, dragging my luggage behind. The station's pretty quiet this late at night, the loudest sound being the clicking of our sharp heels on the marble floor.
“At least you'll get to see your granny,” Iris says after a while.
“True.” I am looking forward to that. When I was little, Mom and I lived in Ebbottsville and I stayed with Granny all the time. She and I would milk the goats and collect the eggs, and by the end of the day, she'd have me laughing so hard my stomach ached. But after we moved to DC in mom's never-ending quest for
A Better Life
, there wasn't time for the six-hour drive to go see her. It's been five years since we last visited. So yeahâGranny's the one bright spot in this whole debacle.
“Do you remember anybody there?” Iris asks. “Any of the kids?”
Thinking back, I try to recall. “Not really. We moved here when I was seven, so it's not like I'd formed any deep and lasting emotional ties.”
“Well, I'm sure you'll charm them all to pieces.”
I snort. “I think you have me confused with you.”
“You'll be fine,” Iris says. “It might even be nice to have a break from the norm. Think of it like a trip abroad.”
Easy for her to say. While she's finishing our junior year at Westfield Academy, I'll be at Plurd County High, where I'm just sure they'll have Comparative Religion, Anthropology, and German III. I'll be lucky to have a math class that doesn't involve flash cards. “People don't go abroad to rural Appalachia,” I say. “There's no immunization against poverty and unemployment.”
“It can't be that bad,” Iris says. “I mean, your mom grew up there andâ”
“I rest my case.”
My phone buzzes in my hand. I glance at the caller ID: Pender Federal Corrections Institute. I silence the phone and keep walking.
Iris glances at the screen. “You'll have to talk to her eventually,” she says.
I glare sideways at her, but I know she's right. There are things I need sorted outâmoney stuff, school stuffâand Mom's the only one who can explain them. Sighing, I let my suitcase bump to a stop against my leg and answer the phone.
An automated voice tells me I have a message from Jamie Briscoe at the Pender Women's Corrections Institute. I have about a second to think “institute” sounds so much better than “prison” before Mom's voice fills my ear.
“Hi, Lib. I know you're probably on your way to Mommy's now. I just wanted to tell you that I love you. I know things look pretty bad right now, but you have to trust me. They'll get better soon. We just have to pull together and be a team. We'll get through this. I promise. I love you, sweetie. Hang in there!”
Then there's silenceâexcept for the blood pounding in my head. Did she really,
really and freaking truly
invoke the speech?
We just need to pull together and be a team.
How many times have I heard those words? During her double jobs and night school and the stupid rallies she had to attend, all while I was cooking dinner, paying bills, and going to bed in an empty house. The birthday cakes I baked myself. The volleyball games and teacher conferences and school plays she missed, that was us pulling together, I guess. We were a team when I was alone.
I realize I'm frozen in the middle of the concourse, still holding the phone to my ear. “She wants us to be a team.”
“Be a team,” I say.
There's a disgusted look on Iris's face. She's too polite to say it, but I know she doesn't think much of my mom. Never has. Chalk that up to years of watching Mom let me down. Too many examples of that Briscoe teamwork.
My fingers are bloodless, wrapped tightly around the phone. She's in prison, for God's sake, and she acts like she got a parking ticket. Meanwhile, my whole freaking life is upside down.
“You know what? Fuck the team. I'm done.” I slam the phone into the side pocket of my backpack. “No more picking up her slack. No more disappointments. From here on out, I no longer have a mom.”
I'm surprised how easy that is to say. Like throwing away a sweater that never really fit, I write the woman who gave me life right out of it.
Iris is quiet for a second or two then squeezes my hand. “We better go. Your bus should be here by now.”
The number above my gate blinks as we approach. A handful of people line up to give their luggage to the cargo guy. There's an older couple and three backpacking students, chatting in what I think is Korean. Suddenly, I feel very alone.
Iris links my arm through hers and pulls me close. “You can visit me on the weekends. Whenever you want.”
Leaning into her, I say, “Thanks, 'Ris. That'd be great.” But I know it won't happen. She'll be busy with the newspaper, school, and theater. Weekends will be packed with group projects and extra rehearsals, parties that I'm not invited to. There'll be no time for catching up. No time for me. People who leave get forgotten pretty fast.
There's a reason my ticket says
Fourteen hours later, I'm standing alone on a cracked sidewalk wearing the same clothes. I thought Granny'd be at the station to pick me up, but when I call her, she says I should take a taxi. After dialing the only cab company in the phone book, I wait thirty minutes until an ancient Monte Carlo pulls up in front of the bus station. There's no sign on it though, so when the guy rolls down the window and leans over, I back away.
“Yew call fer a taxi?”
God, I'd forgotten about the accent down here. “Yeah. Are you it?”
He nods and I pull my suitcases toward the car. It doesn't look like he's going to open the trunk or, you know, get out to help me. So I shove my bags across the backseat, climb in after them, and slam the door. “Thanks so much for all your help,” I say.
He glares at me in the rearview mirror. “Where you going?”
“The Briscoe farm.”
“Figures,” he mutters.
I grin. The women in my family aren't exactly shrinking violets. This guy must have tangled with Granny at some point in the past. “Do you know how to get there?”
He doesn't spare me a glance, so I assume he does and settle in for the winding trip up the mountain. Eastern Kentucky isn't at its best in February. The trees are bare, the snow is melting, and the sky's full of clouds. Granny calls this mud season, and that's mostly what I see in the bare fields we pass. Red mud, little white farmhouses puffing out woodsmoke, and the curving gray sky holding it all down.
I feel the shift in the engine as the road tilts upward. We pass the ancient billboard proclaiming,
Coal Keeps the Lights On
. Then trees close in on either side, disappearing only when walls of craggy rock take their place. I'm not one of those people who wax all poetic about nature, but I like the way this place makes me feel. Like my bones are made of the same rocky stuff. I've missed it.
It takes about fifteen minutes to get to Granny's. Her driveway's long and really muddy and the taxi guy refuses to go up it. He's worried he'll get stuck. I pay him seven dollars, call him chickenshit under my breath, and haul my backpack and suitcases a quarter mile up the hill.
There are so many things I'd forgotten about: the haunted birdhouses we made one Halloween; the split-rail fence my granddad built; two little terriers nipping at my ankles; and Goldie, the old retriever, licking my face and covering my coat with muddy paw prints. I push them away, and they race back to the old brick ranch at the end of the drive, barking nonstop. It's nice to know things haven't changed that much in five years. I'm picking my way across the drier parts of the dirt yard when the front door flies open.
“Liberty, s'at you? God almighty, yer all growed up.”
The woman on the porch is a far cry from the wiry, spitfire of a redhead I remember. She's tiny. Thin and stooped. Her cotton-candy hair is a shade I'd call Strawberry Jolly Rancher. If I hadn't just heard my granny's voice come out of that body, I'd swear I'd never seen the woman. Is this really what sixty-one years does to a person?
“It's me.” I climb the steps and drop my suitcases. She hugs me and I try to find something to put my arms around. It's like hugging a bird skeleton. “Granny, you're so â¦” Skinny. Feeble. Old.
She launches into a cough that makes my throat burn. Before it's done, she's bent over, hanging on to the porch rail.
I put a hand on her bony back. “Let's go inside, and I'll get you some water,” I say.
I sit her on the same ugly plaid couch we used to play Clue on and head to the kitchen. Everything looks exactly the sameâgreen-striped wallpaper, bright yellow curtains, coffee pot on the stove, glasses in the cabinet. I'm reaching for the faucet when Granny calls out.
“Don't use the faucet, Libby. There's bottle water in the fridge.”
I grab a bottle and take it in to Granny, watching as she downs half of it.
“Thanks, sugar pie.” She rubs her chest.
I sit down next to her and put my arm behind her. “You sound terrible. What's wrong?”
“Just a cold, but the cough's sticking with me.” She smiles, a picket-fence grin with missing slats. “Now, tell me what all you been up to at that fancy school o' yours.”
I tell her about my best friend, Iris, about drama club, volleyball, and newspaper staff. About Georgetown, my dream college. I'm hoping to get early action this year. I have a good chance. But there's this complicated equation of Mother + Prison = Legal Bills =
I can't freaking believe she spent my college fund!
= Must earn scholarship.
Luckily, Plurd County High School should be a cakewalk compared to Westfield. Straight As â¦ here I come.
My eyes wander over Granny as I talk. Her T-shirt's faded to a dingy brown, the Natural Bridge decal peeling off. Sweatpants swim around her, like adult clothes on a kid, and she's wearing tube socks with flip-flops. I realize if I saw her in DC, I'd think she was homeless.
“You sure turned out beautiful!” she says. “Just like your mama. I bet you got a dozen boyfriends up there too, don'tcha?”
“I didn't have time for boyfriends, Granny.” I don't go into the fact that, after my homework was done, I had the cleaning and the bills and the grocery shopping to take care of because My Former Mother was running around the capitol with some hand-lettered sign yelling badly rhymed slogans about the dangers of genetically modified peaches or whatever cause she was supporting that week.
“I reckon not,” Granny says. “Your mama says you're a bookworm.”
“Granny, I don't want to talk about that woman, okay? Just pretend I don't have a mother. It's always been easy for me.”
“I'm serious.” I feel my jaw jut out in what Iris calls my “don't eff with me” face.
Granny mashes her lips together and shakes her head, which I recognize as her “you're full of shit but I ain't gonna say nothin'” face. She squeezes my hand. “Well, I'm'a let you get settled in. If you need anythin', I'll be righ'chere.”
I get my suitcases from the front porch. When I roll them through the living room, she's already stretched out under a fleece throw. I walk toward the little room at the back where I always slept, stopping to look at the pictures lining the hallway. My Former Mother (MFM) as a toddler, playing in the creek with Uncle Mark. MFM at Tanner's Peak in her cap and gown, the black robe hiding the fact that she was four months pregnant. Granny holding me at the blackberry patch, my face and hands stained purple. Granddad in his army uniform, back when he had two hands. Just a couple weeks after that, he lost the left one on Hamburger Hill. Granny says he left it there on purpose, so he could keep giving the finger to the Vietcong.
The photos leave me feeling lonely. I feel even lonelier as I stand in my old room, imagining the look on Iris's face if she could see it. Ruffled muslin curtains. A worn, patchwork quilt under a framed, faded magazine story about starfish. Just like the rest of the house, they're shabby and cheap. I'm embarrassed by it all and disgusted with myself for feeling that way.