Authors: Jeannine Garsee
For Ruth Ward, who totally gets me
Sometimes, when I dream, the deadliest moment in my life happens all over again. That’s when I’m given the chance to do things differently.
When I spot the smoke from the beach, I don’t stand there like a dummy, wondering if I’m dreaming. Instead, I race through the sand and up the rocky hill, slicing my feet on cinders and brush. Smoke billows from the cottage windows, clogging my throat. In spite of the steady rain, the orange flames crackle and spit. My face burns. I feel my skin melting away.
Uncaring, I fling myself into the cottage. The hammer drops from Nana’s hand as she whirls from my bedroom door, alight with joy and astonishment. “Rinnie! THERE you are!”
I throw myself at her, burying my face in her neck. Hugging her.
I can’t stop hugging her.
Saturday, October 18
“Mom, no service means no service. Screaming at it won’t help.”
Mom examines her useless cell phone. “How can this be?”
“No biggie. I’m sure we can find an old-fashioned one around. Like on
Little House on the Prairie
?” I cup one fist to my mouth and crank the air with the other. “Maw! Paw! Kin ya hear me now?”
Her murderous glare flattens me. “Hilarious, Rinn.”
thought it was. At least
can maintain a sense of humor after five solid days in a cramped SUV with a mom suffering from PMS and nicotine withdrawal. Not to mention that my iPod died somewhere between Phoenix and St. Louis. For the last eight hundred miles, Mom’s tortured me with talk radio.
While Mom tries to hammer more bars into her phone by brute force, I stare through the window at the town square of River Hills, Ohio. Okay,
Little House on the Prairie
may be a tiny exaggeration. No horses, no buggies, no bonnets, no
boardwalks. But no traffic lights, either—and what’s with that ugly red restaurant shaped like a boxcar? We’re parked in front of it like we’re actually going in.
“This is Millie’s diner. Isn’t it darling?” Mom flicks my arm. “Don’t snort at me.”
“I didn’t snort. I’m having an allergic reaction.”
“To all this freaking fresh air.” I fake a cough. “My system can’t take it. Maybe I ought to get out and suck on the tailpipe for a minute.”
“Corinne, please. I don’t want it to be this way for—”
“The rest of my life?”
“No, for however long we decide to stay here.”
Hope flickers. “So we might go back?”
“Honey, I told you, nothing is carved in stone. Frank and I need to think things over, and you and I need to … well … be away from him for a while.”
My mother’s understatements never fail to blow me away. “California’s pretty big. Couldn’t we be
from him there? I mean, what’s wrong with San Francisco or, or … ?”
“I don’t know anyone in San Francisco. Here, I know Millie.”
“Millie, big deal. You haven’t laid eyes on her in years.” Mom doesn’t challenge this. “You could talk to him,” I persist, fighting the too-familiar pain in my chest. “You could tell him how sorry I am. You could make him understand.”
“I did. Rinn, I tried—”
“Then you didn’t try hard enough!”
I throw myself out of the SUV, stalk across the street—no cars at the moment to run me over—and head toward the kind
of town square you see on TV: a grassy park crisscrossed with stone walkways and a white gazebo flocked with patriotic ribbons. I could be strolling through a set from one of those old “family show” reruns I used to watch with Nana.
Nana died in July. Now that I can’t bear to watch those shows, why would I want to live in one? This dinky town is too close to
I stuff my cold hands into the pockets of my heavy new jacket. Where do I think I’m running off to? To the Greyhound station to hop a bus back to La Jolla, so I can beg my stepfather to give me another chance?
Frank won’t do it. Not after what I put him through.
Mom hurries up to catch my sleeve. “Rinn, I promise you. It’s not the end of the world.”
“Not yours, anyway.”
my fault,” she says softly.
She’s right: it’s mine, though she’ll never say that to my face. She’s too afraid I’ll slash my throat and mess up her bathroom again.
“Honey, do you think this is easy for me? Leaving my home? My friends?”
At least you have some.
“Starting a new job in a strange town?”
here. It’s not like you landed from outer space.”
“True, but it’s been years since I left for college.” College, in California, where she got pregnant with me and dropped out in her senior year.
“Yeah, lucky you,” I grumble.
Mom steps around, forcing me to face her. “Okay. Did you … ?” She trails off the way she always does when she starts to ask this question. I know she doesn’t trust me, not that I
blame her. But neither does she want me to feel that distrust. Like I could miss it.
“Yes, Mommy,” I recite. “I took my pills like a good girl. Same way I’ve been taking them twice a day for the past three months and thirteen days. But you know that, right? I bet you count them. Maybe you’d like to personally
Mom spins around, hugging herself, and not because of the chilly Ohio air. A rush of shame wells up in me. I hate this awfulness between us now. I hate that I’m so bitchy to her when she’s the only one who sticks by me. Unlike my real dad, the drive-by sperm donor who vanished after their one and only date. Unlike Frank, who took eight years to figure out that a bipolar stepdaughter was
in the contract when he said “I do” to my mom.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble.
Please don’t let her be crying again!
She’s not. She turns around and pulls me close to her so fast, I lose my footing. Both of us end up in a pile of leaves. “I love you, honey. We’re gonna make this work, right?” She kisses my cheek and jumps up. “Come on, let’s find Aunt Millie.”
I have no idea how Millie Lux suddenly turned into a long-lost relative. We find her shaking grease off a basket of sizzling onion rings, behind the U-shaped counter in the Boxcar Diner. Yep, that’s the name of it.
Mom and the pudgy lady with the platinum perm squeeze and smooch. Mo? People who call my mother “Mo” instead of
“Monica” generally live to regret it.
I’m not one of the Three Stooges
is how she corrects the ignorant.
Mom and “Aunt” Millie jig hand in hand, oblivious to me and the one other customer in the place, a guy about my age with scruffy reddish-brown hair. For moral support if nothing else, I move casually toward his booth with the tabletop jukebox.
He nods in a friendly down-home way. “Hi, I’m Nate.”
“You want a Coke or something?”
The guy vaults the counter, grabs a glass, shoots cola into it from a spigot, then hops back over to hand it to me. Meanwhile, Mom and Aunt Millie lunge into a cheerleader routine, guaranteed to stop traffic—if there
One! Two! Three! Four! Who’s the team worth fightin’ for?
River Hills! River Hills!
“Yikes. Laverne and Shirley,” I say as scruffy guy slides back into the booth.
Obviously no cable TV around here, either. “Just an old show I used to watch with my grandmother.”
“She died.” I crumple a straw wrapper.
“Three months and fourteen days ago.”
Unfazed by my precision, he repeats, “Sorry.”
“So, you come here often?” I bat my eyes, trying to be funny, and trying to ignore the Ya-Ya sisters.
He misses this joke, too. “Yeah, Miss Millie makes the best onion rings. Plus you get free refills on your drinks.”
Oh, help. This is far worse than any
episode. This is Mayberry, folks, and Opie Taylor just bought me a Coke. Except Opie Taylor wasn’t