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Friday afternoon


Emily hadn’t seen Jared get on the bus. She could have missed him, maybe while she was distracted by Taylor Dean and the way he looked in his distressed jeans, but she didn’t think so. Dad was going to be pissed. Not that she would tell him. Maybe he’d never find out. Surely Jared would beat him home. Definitely, if he knew what was good for him.

She kept an eye out for him on the walk home from the bus stop. Maybe he’d gotten a ride with Aaliyah. Maybe—

She stopped in her tracks at the sight of Mom’s car in their driveway. She was here! Already!

She started to jog and quickly accelerated into a run, her backpack banging painfully against her shoulder blades. A half block away, she shrugged it off and ran unencumbered. She’d go back for it. No one wanted her ratty schoolbooks anyway.

She didn’t slow as she got to the car and saw that no one was in it, but veered for the front door, sure Mom would be inside. She pounded on the door when she realized she couldn’t let herself in because her keys were in the backpack she’d dropped. Her mother must have been waiting right there by the door, because it swung open as she hauled back for another pounding, and instead she flung herself into her mother’s arms.

“Mom!” she said.

Mom folded her up, hugging Emily for all she was worth. Emily soaked up two weeks’ worth of missed hugs, ignoring the flare of pain in her bandaged shoulder. Mom was back. All was right with the world.

She was not crying.

“Emily,” her mother said, kissing the top of her head over and over. “Oh, my girl. I missed you so much.”

Finally, Mom let her go and held her back to look at her. Her Mom’s eyes glistened at the corners. “I’d swear you’ve grown just since I’ve been gone.”

Emily laughed. “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

Mom looked past her, which was easy given her lack of height. “Where’s Jared?”

Emily bit her lip. She hadn’t thought as far as what to say to Mom. “Um, probably right behind me. I think he got a ride home.”

There. Not a lie.

And at that moment, a neon blue Hyundai pulled up to their mailbox. Aaliyah’s car. They both watched as the passenger side popped open, but no Jared immediately appeared. At least, no more than his foot to the curb, the rest of him still in the car, probably kissing his girlfriend good-bye.

“I’d better go grab my backpack,” Emily said, leaving Mom and Jared to their reunion and taking off down the street.

She didn’t know how it would go. Jared seemed so angry lately. He didn’t dare unleash it on Dad. She hoped he’d hold himself back with Mom.

When she grabbed her backpack and turned around, Mom was over on the driver’s side of the car, chatting with Aaliyah, but it didn’t last long. Aaliyah drove off, waving an arm out the window at Emily, as she trudged back with her overstuffed backpack.

It left Mom and Jared staring at each other on the front walkway.

“Hi, Jared,” Mom said. To Emily it sounded restrained. Cautious, like she was afraid to have it thrown back in her face. “I’ve missed you.”

Mom said it every time she called, and Emily passed it on to Jared every time. He never did more than grunt in response.

“I—” he didn’t seem to know how to go on, so he didn’t. He just stopped and then circled around her, headed for the house.

“I’m hungry,” he tossed over his shoulder. “Long day. Long week.”

Almost a speech for him these days. Mom looked helplessly at Emily and followed Jared in. She took up the rear.

“I’ll make you something,” Mom said as she passed through the doorway.

“I’ve got it,” Jared responded. “I’ve gotten good at that.”

Mom missed a step like she felt his words physically, but then she kept going. “It was good to see Aaliyah.”

I’m fine, Mom, thanks for asking.”

Mom’s face closed off, the way it did when Dad went at her. “I can’t say anything right, can I?” It was as though someone had squashed her voice flat.

Jared didn’t answer.

“Oh!” Mom said, forcing life back into her voice, “I almost forgot. I brought you presents!”

“And so it begins,” Jared muttered.

Emily wanted to kick him like she had that morning, but there was no way he’d let her get away with it twice. And anyway, she wasn’t close enough to be subtle about it.

So, she made up for her brother, pumping enthusiasm into her voice as she asked, “Ooh, what?”

She didn’t really need a present, but a fancy new notebook, a really nice fountain pen … No, Mom didn’t have that kind of money. It would probably be something small. Would Jared’s gift be enough to win him over? Could he be won?

“Let me get them.”

Mom retreated to the foyer, and Emily shot her brother a hard look. “You could be nicer,” she said. “Mom’s trying. I’m sad she’s gone too, but maybe it’s for the best. Maybe they’ll even realize how much they miss each other. You saw how they were.”

“I saw.” He had the peanut butter out and was focused on slathering it thickly on a slice of bread, putting her hard look to waste.

“So …” she prompted.

“So, what?”

“So you could understand. You could try. Even Dad is trying.” That morning. At breakfast. And Jared hadn’t given him half the crap he gave Mom.

Jared slapped the bread down on the plate. “Whatever, all right? You’re the perfect one. You’ve got this. Mom and Dad both love you. You love them. One big happy family. Well, I’m not happy, okay? You can’t tell me not to feel what I’m feeling or to just get over it. I’m trying. If you can’t see it, that’s not my problem.”

He stood there practically seething, and Emily took a step back.

“You think I’m happy?” she asked. If only he knew. “Well, screw you. I’m just trying not to make everyone feel worse.”

Jared glared so hard that if he had laser vision, she’d be dead. She glared back, even though her glare was starting to get a little watery around the edges. Oh, hell. She couldn’t cry. He’d pass it off as her being an emotional little girl. Only fourteen months between them and he acted like it was everything.

He whirled around suddenly and stomped off toward his room, leaving Emily and his sandwich behind.

When she turned away from staring after him, Mom was right there with tears in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Mom said, like it was her fault. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”

“He’ll get over it,” Emily said, finding it weird that she sounded like the parent. She didn’t really know what Jared would or wouldn’t do. He’d never confided in her, and lately he’d been a stranger.

“So, what did you bring me?” Emily asked. She didn’t so much care anymore, but it was a distraction, and they both needed that.

Mom went to the counter and grabbed a few napkins to wipe away the tears. She didn’t touch Jared’s plate. Neither did Emily. She doubted he’d be back for it, but she didn’t dare assume. When she turned back around, Mom had pasted a smile on her face and held up the bag she’d gone to the foyer to grab.

“It’s right here,” she said, pulling out a nail polish kit, the kind with rainbow colors and stencils.

Emily hadn’t realized she was excited for the present until her heart sank. It was like in two weeks, Mom had forgotten everything she knew about her daughter. Nail polish lasted all of five seconds on her nails before she picked or chewed it off. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d bothered to apply any.

“Great,” she said, forcing enthusiasm.

Her mother laughed. “I know it’s not exactly your thing, but it’s nail art. Look, it’s got stencils and gems and a dozen different colors. I figured it was something we could do together. Like when you were a kid. You can do my nails, and I can mangle yours, and we can laugh. You’ll dismantle my disasterpieces before they can embarrass you anyway.”

Now Emily did smile. Disasterpieces. She loved it. That’s what they would be, too. Mom couldn’t even braid hair.

“It sounds like fun.”

“Really?” her mother asked.

“Really. Tell me you got the same thing for Jared.”

Mom laughed, and it made Emily laugh too.

“Sorry, no.”

Mom’s laughter went right through Jared. He was in his room, but the walls weren’t nearly as thick as they should be. He felt crappy in every way it was possible to feel crappy. Emily was both right and wrong. He was lashing out, but he couldn’t help himself. He was angry and upset and sad and missing Mom and hurt all at once. The jumble of emotions made his brain feel too big for his skull, like it was bruised from bumping up against the bone casing.

He wanted to go back out there and be part of everything, but he didn’t feel any differently than he had when he got home, and so he didn’t see how things would go any better. He might snap at Mom again, and he didn’t want that. He didn’t want to be Dad, and her comment about not being able to say anything right went straight through him.

His phone buzzed, and he pulled it from his pocket to see that a text had come in.

How’s it going?

It was Aaliyah. Would she worry if he didn’t answer, or assume he was busy with the family?

How did he respond to that? He couldn’t lie to her and say it was going great, but he couldn’t say why not. Because he was an ass? Because Emily had called him on his shit?

Okay, I guess, he sent finally.

So what are you doing writing to me then? Go have fun. Be familial!

To Jared’s shock, a smile started to crack his face. Aaliyah had that kind of effect. You never knew how a conversation was going to go. You thought you were gone one place and then—boom—you were at another entirely. He liked that. It kept him on his toes.

Sounds like an order, he texted back.

Damned straight.

How would you like it if I gave you an order?

You could try. (smiley face, raspberry face)

Jared sent back a raspberry and a kissy face and googly eyes and half a dozen other emojis and then waited for a response.

Stop stalling, she said. Go.

Jared stuck his tongue out at the phone. Not that Aaliyah could see him. If she was here, she’d tell him there were better things to do with that tongue and they’d roll around on his bed kissing.

Or maybe not.

No doubt she’d be pushing him back toward the living room. He looked to his door. Aaliyah would probably grill him on Monday, and he’d have to lie if he hid out in his room. Now that he was calmer, it seemed like that—hiding, rather than deescalating or whatever his psych teacher would call it.

He sighed and forced himself up off his bed. If he was going to do this, he might as well get it over with.

Jared opened the door and started back down the hall slowly, like he was going to his own execution. He smelled the nail polish before he even hit the kitchen. Good, they’d be busy. They might hardly notice him going for the sandwich he’d left behind. He was almost sure that was a good thing and that he wasn’t hurt they’d moved on without him, doing something that shut him out.

He hardly spared them a glance as he got to the peanut butter bread and flipped one side over to make it a half sandwich. With no jelly, it was going to be dry, so he helped himself to some milk and took it all to the breakfast bar, since his mother and sister had taken over the kitchen table.

No one said anything, but the air was heavy with more than the reek of nail polish.

Mom was painting Emily’s nails. Or, really, had already painted them white and was now doing something with the tiniest brush he’d ever seen with red polish pooling at the end like a blood droplet. The red had already hit some of the nails, making them look like the Japanese flag or something—a scarlet circle on a field of white.

“What’s that supposed to be?” he asked, careful to keep his voice neutral. He didn’t want to sound too critical or too inviting, like he was over everything.

Mom held up Emily’s half-finished hand. “Ladybugs,” she said. “I figured even I couldn’t screw them up. Red body, black spots, right?”

“Uh,” he started.

Mom smiled at him, “It’s okay, you can say it. I’m hopeless.”

Emily laughed. “Maybe you’d better let me take over while you give Jared his present.”

“I thought you’d never ask.” Mom put the red brush back into the small glass bottle and pushed it toward Emily. Then she stood up and headed for the kitchen island and a bag she had there. She brought it over to Jared and put it down on the counter beside his plate. “Here. I hope you like it.”

She was trying to catch his gaze, but he wasn’t ready for that yet.

Jared pushed his now-empty plate aside and pulled the bag into the void left behind. He reached in and pulled out … a runner’s backpack, complete with hydration bladder and drinking tube. Then he did look at his mother. “I have one of these,” he said, thinking even as he did that he sounded like an ungrateful kid at Christmas.

Despite that, she smiled at him. “I know. You have one for here. I thought I’d get you a backpack you could keep at my apartment so that you always have one handy.”

A million emotions bounced around his brain, but he couldn’t catch hold of any of them. He didn’t want to be touched by the thoughtfulness or upset at the significance or anything else he might be feeling.

“Thanks,” he said, knowing that was the right answer at least.

“You’re welcome,” she said. She came around the breakfast bar to hug him, and he allowed it, even if he didn’t hug her back. He wanted to. He just had this feeling that if he opened up, everything in the world was going to come spilling out and he wouldn’t know how to bottle it again. He did lean in, though, and he couldn’t help noticing that she smelled the same, like lavender. She’d taken her shower stuff with her or bought more once she was out. At least something felt familiar. Unchanged. It unclenched something in his gut, and he pulled away before it could spread.

Mom gave him a last squeeze before letting go. Then she looked back and forth between Jared and Emily, “So, what should we do until your father comes home?” Her face contorted when she said your father, but weirdly, like she was trying not to let it and the effort was too much for her. “He wants to go out and talk about things tonight, so I guess we’ll officially be off in the morning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start our time together now. Game? Movie? Ice cream?”

“Yes!” Emily answered instantly.

Mom laughed. “Yes to which?”

“Any of it. All of it. Jared, what do you think?” Emily looked at him so hopefully. He wasn’t in the mood for a game and all that interaction, but he could probably sit through a movie, as long as they could decide on one, and ice cream sounded pretty good, maybe a Coke float to combine sugar and caffeine.

“Sure, ice cream and a movie would be good. As long as you don’t choose a chick flick. Then you’re on your own.”

“Got it,” Mom said. “Something brimming with testosterone. Maybe explosions. But ice cream first.”

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