"I’ll play with you, sweetie," Mom tells her. "Let the boys go out."
"Carter! Carter! Please." She hugs me and then runs over and wraps her arms around Travis, too. I groan, knowing this can’t be the way Travis wants to spend a Saturday night, but also knowing Sara has a way of getting what she wants.
I look at him and Travis shrugs, before saying, "I am like the King of Candyland. Get ready to go down."
Sara looks up at him, smiles, and starts jabbering in excitement.
Travis, Sara, Mom and I spend the next three hours playing every game in Sara’s closet. And it’s actually kind of cool. Mom’s the person she would always be if it wasn’t for alcohol. Sara’s happy. I’m pretty sure Travis isn’t thinking about his parents. The only thing missing is Kira.
Kira still has her hair straight when I pick her up Monday morning. She’s dressed in a pair of jeans and a hoodie. The clothes are almost too normal for her, but she still looks good. As soon as she closes the door behind her, I don’t even give her a chance to speak before I lean over and kiss her. Kissing her ranks at the top of my favorite things to do list.
When my body starts to overheat, I press my lips to hers one more time before pulling away.
"Well, good morning to you, too." Her hand comes up to touch her lips and I hope she’s trying to savor my touch. On the way to school, I give her a rundown of Saturday night.
"That sounds like so much fun! I totally want to play next time. I love your little sister. She’s so cool."
Smiling, I say, "She takes after me."
We get a few strange looks when we show up at school holding hands. People are surprised to see us together. Death glares come from the cheer team, but Kira doesn’t flinch or say anything. Travis alternates between teasing us, and telling Kira how much cooler he is than me, and that she should go out with him instead. I alternate between laughing and wanting to punch him even though I know he’d never really try to steal my girl.
Mrs. Z gives me the eye when we get to English, but before she can say anything, I promise her I will have work for her tomorrow and every day the rest of the week. And I will. I have to, even though I have no idea how I’m going to get it all done.
"You’re running out of time, Mr. Shaw," is her only reply.
After practice, it takes a real Houdini act to dodge Mel, who is waiting for me, the way I used to wait for her after practice, but I manage. By the time I get to the store, I’m exhausted, knowing there are hours of work ahead of me.
"Truth or dare?" Kira whispers to me when I fall into the chair by the register.
I look up at her, wondering how she knew. "Truth. I’m stressed out about English. I have a lot to do and it takes me forever to do it." My eyes won’t stay on her, hating what I admitted.
"But you want to? Do it, I mean?"
"Yeah. I don’t want to fail. And I’ve managed it before, but…"
Kira shrugs. "Then you’ll do it again. I know you can, Coach. You teach me more basketball, I’ll help you with English."
I’d wanted this on my terms, and somehow she gave it to me, without my even having to ask.
As the next couple weeks go by, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for Mrs. Z to tell me the work I’ve turned in isn’t good enough. Waiting for us to somehow lose a game, which we haven’t. Undefeated so far and with the way I’m playing, I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s going to go wrong.
So what will it be? Will Kira suddenly start spazzing out like Mel did? Turning into a girl with multiple personalities who’s never happy with what I do? Nah, I’m pretty sure that isn’t what’s going to happen. She’s awesome. She’s the only person who makes me feel like talking. Who makes me feel the way I always tried to pretend I felt. With her, it’s not an act. I don’t have to lie. Plus, she’s smokin’ hot.
So then that leaves Mom. Will she be the one to bring everything crashing down on me again? Because right now, things are perfect. I look in her eyes when she wakes up, study her voice on the phone, rummage through all the stock rooms at the store. I’ve even looked in her closet. Nothing. Does that mean she hasn’t had a drink since the day she woke up so sick? In my chest, it feels like she hasn’t. Like she realizes how bad it was and is now better. That she’ll never pick up a bottle again because she knows what it does to us. What it could do to Sara and she’s decided that’s more important.
My head is another story though. Last time, she told me it wouldn’t happen again and I believed her. Look how that turned out. This time, she didn’t even tell me. There were no promises. Just nothing. Just…suddenly sober.
But for how long?
"Mr. Shaw," Mrs. Z’s voice rips me away from where I just went. "And here I thought you weren’t falling asleep in my class anymore."
I look over at Kira, trying to give her the eye that says she should have saved me, but she smirks, winks, and walks out of the room with everyone else. Traitor.
"You have a minute?"
Yeah. Like I can say no to a teacher. "Absolutely." Really I want to tell her no because she’s about to make my nightmares come true.
She sits on the edge of her desk and I stand in front of her. "I just want to let you know I’m proud of you. You’ve done a great job these past weeks. You’re bringing your grade up nicely and you’re caught up. Keep up the good work, Mr. Shaw. "
"Excuse me?" Totally not what I expected her to say.
"You heard me. And I want to let you know again, that I’m always here to talk. If you’re having trouble with your work or anything."
She knows. Mrs. Z knows. I think about backpedaling. Telling her I don’t need help and never will, but then I remember how it felt with Kira. Not lying and something makes me open my mouth and do it again. "I’m doing okay. I just… have to go slow, ya know? Sometimes it’s confusing and gets a little jumbled in my head, but if I take it slow, I can work it out."
Some of the weight falls off my shoulders, my chest, with each of the words.
"That’s understandable. Especially with Shakespeare. He’s not very easy to understand. Please come to me if you need help. My door is always open to you, Carter. You’re a smart boy. I know that. I just want to see you shine."
Her words find something inside me that I didn’t know was there. "Thanks, Mrs. Z. I’m working on it."
"You’ll get there. I have no doubt about it."
Not gonna lie. There’s totally an extra spring in my step when I walk out of the class. It’s magnified when I see Kira waiting outside the room for me. "Thanks for having my back," I tease. "Aren’t you supposed to be keeping me awake?"
She hooks her arm through mine as we start walking to art. "Nope. You’re all grown up now. You can handle it yourself."
"Aww, thanks, Mom. Shit…forget I called you that because then I couldn’t do this." I stop walking, hook my fingers in her belt loops and pull her toward me until there’s no space between us and I’m leaning against the locker. My hands then find their home on her h*ps as I let my mouth skim over hers. I kiss the side of her mouth, the other side and then part her lips with my tongue. Kira’s arms wrap around my neck, her hands thread through my hair. She tugs a little making it sting in a good way.
All too soon the bells ringing and the kiss is over. We’re obviously late, but I don’t think either of us cares.
Ruffling my hair again, Kira says, "I love it when your hair looks all messy like you just rolled out of bed."
This time, I don’t let myself think about what could go wrong because maybe this time, it won’t. Maybe everything is finally getting better. Actually, it couldn’t get any better. Maybe now it’s just staying there.
The second I walk into the house, I know something is wrong. The scent I hate doesn’t cling to the air. Nothing looks different, but I somehow know. My feet feel heavy as I force them to move forward. "Mom?" I call as I walk through the house.
Barney is playing in the family room, so I know Sara is here and fine, but my heart is still running a marathon and my muscles are tight.
I hear a sniffling sound before Mom says, "In here, Carter."
As I round the corner into the living room and see her eyes red, everything inside me shifts. The fear and worry for her, for her drinking, is still there, but anger, too. Anger for who or whatever hurt her. "What’s wrong?" My voice isn’t quite as calm as I try for.
" It’s your grandpa." With shaky hands, she wipes her eyes. "I don’t know why I expect him to change. Why I keep thinking things will get better with him."
Probably for the same reason I believe things will get better with you… My thoughts annoy me. Mom isn’t like him. Yes, she has a problem, but she’s never mean. She’d never hurt us the way he hurt her. And besides, things are better for her now. She has stopped. Hopefully, he hasn’t changed that.
"He’s a jerk. I hate him. What did he do to you?" I’m pacing the room, knowing I should sit next to her, knowing I should be comforting her, but I can’t.
Mom sighs. "Don’t say you hate him. No matter what he’s still your grandfather."
My head whips around to face her. "What? He verbally abused you for your whole life. He pretty much pretends Sara doesn’t exist. Call me crazy, but I don’t consider that any kind of grandpa I want. You shouldn’t either. You should just walk away from him."
But I know she can’t, just the way I could never walk away from her. Not like they’re the same, because they’re not.
She holds up her hand. "Please. I can’t fight about him right now. I have too much to figure out. They’ve given me a week to find him a new place to live, which will take money and time, both of which I don’t have a lot of. And I can’t…" She shakes her head. When she speaks again, her voice is softer. "He’s my dad, but I can’t do it again. I can’t live with him. I can’t bring him here. Not after being free of him for all these years."
It’s guilt’s turn to take over as my primary emotion. "What do you need? We can take the money out of my savings."
Shaking her head, she stands up. "Absolutely not. He doesn’t get your money. It’ll just have to be taken out of money I had saved for us. I just…I feel like I live my own life. I never had that growing up and it scares me to consider living with him again, even if it is only short term. It would help if he could live on his own, or would sell the house." Mom stops talking and then waves her hand. "Never mind." She wipes the remaining wetness from her eyes. "You shouldn’t have to hear this or deal with it. I’ll take care of it. I’m sure we can find him a place to live."
Hopefully. I’m not so sure. What if they talk to his current home? Who’s going to want to deal with a violent, mean old man? But for her, I smile, even though I want to tell her she shouldn’t have to do anything. That he didn’t take care of her, so he should have to take care of himself.
"How did I get so lucky?" Mom walks over to me and cups my cheek with her hand. "How did I get the best son in the world? I’m so lucky to have you, Carter. I want you to know I know that." Her eyes start to pool again.
"Mom, don’t. I mean, I’m good, but I’m not that good," I try to play it off.
"Yes you are. And I want you to know." She pulls her hand back and stands up straight, taking a few breaths like she’s trying to prepare herself for something. "I want you to know, I’m okay. I’ll be okay. After…after the last time, getting so sick? Hurting and scaring you. That’s not okay. None of it. You and Sara are the most important things to me in the whole world and I will never do anything to hurt you again."