“Tomorrow after school,” says Denny.
When he walks into the back, I steal the rest of the peanuts. “Want to tell me what that was about?”
“No,” she says between bites.
“Is he the reason my mom comes in here?”
She demolishes her sandwich and dusts off her hands. It’s like a curtain shade descends over an open pane and the fallen fabric produces an intricate, sad design. For a few seconds, Abby isn’t the girl I hate. She’s a girl whose outside mirrors my inside. “Has there ever been anything in your life you’ve learned that you wish you could take back knowing?”
A sickeningly sharp pain slices through my stomach, the ache worse than hunger. The serious set of Dad’s face while he told me to get the hell out and the bitter cold and loneliness of three in the morning in the car—I could do without those memories. “Yeah.”
“This is one of those things, okay? Work here, but kill your curiosity. If you can’t, then I suggest the Laundromat. I hear they need an attendant.”
It’s a numbing confession. Could the truth be that bad? “My mom’s having an affair with someone here. Maybe that guy. I can handle it.”
“If it were that easy, I would have dragged you in here last Saturday and introduced you to the issue myself. Leave it alone.”
Abby hops off the stool and steps into me. There’s nothing seductive about it unless you’re the kind of guy that likes to have your dick ripped off and handed back to you. “Tell anyone that Denny gives me food and I swear to God I’ll have you screaming like a little girl.”
I smile because I can tell she means it. “And here I thought we were becoming friends.”
“I’m lethal. Never forget it.”
Abby leaves with as much flair as when she’d traipsed in. Who knows if anything out of her mouth today was the truth, but her last statement… Abby probably has never uttered truer words.
Dinner’s done. The dishes have been washed and put away and, on one of her rare nights off, my mother has become an anarchist. There’s a spring in my step as I walk down the dark street with Mom and Maggie. All of us are bundled in multiple layers of clothes to fight off the cold. Behind us, Jax and Kaden push each other, laugh, then one of Jax’s brothers yells out, “Go.”
In a flash, all my cousins and my brother race past us with their arms pumping hard to see who will reach the neighborhood park first.
Thanks to my mother’s crafty thinking, we’re all being rebels by breaking tonight’s curfew. Sometimes a little rebellion is good for the soul.
Maggie slips her hand in mine and does the same with my mother. She draws back as we walk forward then uses our arms to swing herself into the air. She’s getting too big to do this, but I can’t fault her for finding a bit of happiness.
“I don’t have a school project,” Maggie says, but thankfully she was smart enough to keep her mouth shut when Mom told Uncle Paul that’s why we all needed to leave the house.
“Yes, you do,” answers Mom. “Your weekly agenda says that you’ll be starting physical fitness testing next week. You need to practice, and who better to train you than your family.”
I try to suppress a grin, but I fail. Uncle Paul didn’t like my mother informing him that she was taking all of us to the park to help Maggie study, but because Mom asked him nicely and said please, he let us go. Personally, I think it’s because she offered to take the younger kids out. He gets irritated when they’re too loud.
Curfew is a loose term with my uncle. It can change from day to day, from moment to moment. It’s created to suit his whims and his whim tonight was to agree to let my mother empty out his house.
Mom releases Maggie’s hand and gently nudges her forward. “Go on now. Catch up with the boys. This is your first task in preparing for the test—running.”
Maggie starts to bolt after the boys, but I hold on firmly to her fingers. The park is in sight and the dark February night is chased away by multiple streetlights, but there are dark houses along the way.
I was jumped a few days ago and suddenly nothing in this neighborhood feels safe. “She should walk with us.”
Lines crinkle between Mom’s eyes as she studies me. “She’ll be fine. I see her, and Jax and Kaden are watching us from the park.”
Sure enough, the two of them have climbed the jungle gym and behave like soldiers as they scan the area surrounding us.
“Go on, Maggie. I want to talk to Haley.”
My stomach sinks as it hits me what’s going on. Just crap. Maggie yanks out of my grasp and races for the park. It warms my heart to hear Jax and Kaden encouraging her to run faster.
“So,” says Mom.
“So,” I repeat, feeling the need to hide the bruises on my face that I thought I had covered so well with makeup.
“I heard you talked to your dad this morning.”
“I also heard that you talked to John about a scholarship.”
Figures John would snitch on me, but I ignore the twitch of anger because of the hope that spreads within me. Maybe this isn’t about the bruises. Maybe the makeup has worked. “Yes.”
“Alice Johnson’s son heard from Notre Dame.”
I stop, because the ache that I was rejected is still too fresh. Mom pauses beside me and places a comforting hand on my arm. “Did you get in?”
I shake my head because I’ll cry if I speak.
Mom stretches an arm around my shoulder and rests her temple against mine. “Why didn’t you tell us, Haley? Your father and I want to be here for you on this. And not just with the college search, with everything. It’s like you’re keeping everything bottled up all the time.”
I readjust, forcing Mom to drop her arm. “I was going to tell you,” I lie. “Things just got busy.”
“Haley,” Mom starts, but I don’t give her an opportunity.
“I told Maggie I’d race her on the monkey bars.”
Mom’s forehead furrows, but she nods, accepting that I’m ending the conversation. “No matter what, I’m here if you need me.”
If I need her.
I need her and Dad desperately, but since we lost our home everything has become distorted. “All right.”
“Believe me,” she pushes.
“I believe you.” I don’t and as we walk down the street, neither of us holds ourselves as if we believe the other.