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Saturday Morning


Emily sat in the kitchen, trying to tune out Gran’s whistle-snore, which was the only sound in the otherwise silent house. She didn’t know what time Mom was coming for them, but she was going to make the most of the quiet to get her assignments done so she wouldn’t have to do anything at Mom’s but enjoy. They had a lot of lost time to make up for.

Specifically, she had to get through the poetry assignment due Monday. She’d had weeks, but the unit had started right when Mom left, and she hadn’t exactly been inspired. She couldn’t wait for inspiration now. It was down to the wire. She couldn’t let her grades slip or give Mom and Dad one more thing to stress over. To fight over. She’d seen how Dad went after Jared for his grades, even though they weren’t exactly in the toilet. Didn’t matter. Anything less than an A was failure in his eyes.

She blew her strawberry-blonde hair out of her face, got up, grabbed a scrunchie out of the basket on the counter where odds and ends collected, and pulled her hair back mercilessly. She didn’t recognize the scrunchie—one of Mom’s, probably, though she tended more toward neutrals than the jewel tones, and this one was bright red. Maybe Aaliyah’s? Anyway, it was hers for now. Hair contained, she returned to the kitchen table, and flipped open her notebook, tapping her pen against her teeth as she stared at the blank page. She consulted her worksheet again for the millionth time. She really couldn’t wait until her creative writing class moved on to short stories. For now, she was stuck with poetry. Haiku, Quatrain, Sonnet, Refrain, Limerick … She had to pick five out of the ten options listed and create her own.

Almost without her thinking about it her pen started to move across the page.

Screw you; there’s your haiku.

Damn, too many syllables to start. And Ms. Castillo would not be amused.

She crossed out the line and stuck her pen in her mouth, nibbling on the already well-chewed end. Probably a good thing Mom hadn’t gotten her fancy pens. She liked to think she wouldn’t gnaw them as she did her regular pens, pencils and fingernails, but she was probably fooling herself.

Inspiration struck again suddenly, and she jumped to get everything down before the flow stopped. Or someone woke up and interrupted her.

A poem is like a slash to the wrist.

Bleed out on the page,

Smear it with your effusions.

Do it on command.

Because they say.

Because they are owed.

Tick tock, assignment due.

Surely you have blood to spare.

You’ll be judged on the patterns of your pain.

Pools and whirls,

Eddies and absences.

Quick before it clots.

But it’s the surface pain

That leaks out upon the page.

The deepest cuts leave no artist to appreciate.

The pen paused once or twice, nearly made it to her teeth before moving again across the page. Like the poem had always been inside of her and had leapt at the chance to escape.

She read it over. Probably it needed work. Effusions? That didn’t seem a very poetical word. On the other hand, it wasn’t a poetical poem. Not in the beautiful, Robert Frost kind of way. Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. No, this was an in-your-face poem. A shock poem. Too revealing? Maybe. Probably.

She turned her notebook to a new, blank page. She’d hold onto the poem. Turn it in only if nothing else presented itself. Maybe work on those last lines.

But she seemed to have burnt herself out. She started and stopped a half dozen more poems before finally squeaking out a haiku, and not even a very good one. Passable at best. “Get it down, then get it right,” that was what Ms. Castillo was always telling them. Don’t get hung up on perfect. You can’t revise what isn’t there.

Sure. But that only went so far. A rotten apple was never going to make an award-winning pie, no matter how well you worked it.

She was ready to throw her pen across the room when Jared lumbered into the kitchen, something like a zombie, headed straight for the refrigerator.

“Hi,” she said, since she was sure he hadn’t seen her.

Jared nearly jumped out of his skin. His head swung around, and he focused on her with wide eyes. “You scared me,” he accused.

“All I said was ‘hi.’”


“Whatever, sorry.”

But he looked spooked, and instead of continuing on to the refrigerator, he changed course and headed for her. Jared pulled out the chair across from her, unusually careful not to scrape it noisily along the floor, and sat, staring her down so intently she couldn’t look away. What on Earth was his deal?

“Did you hear anything last night?” he asked.

She wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. He was too intense. “You’re kidding, right? You know me—once I’m out, a herd of elephants couldn’t wake me. Why, did you hear something?”

Jared looked off toward the hallway, as though to make sure no one was coming. Weird. Weirder even than usual for him.

“I don’t know,” he said miserably.

“You must have heard something, if you asked. Was it like a car alarm or a crash or …?”

“I said I don’t know,” Jared snapped. Then his lips twisted, like he regretted it, though he didn’t apologize. “It’s just … something woke me up. I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

“Probably Dad coming home. You could ask him, if it bothers you.”

“Ask who what?” Dad asked, coming into the kitchen.

Jared jerked as though he’d been struck. Or caught at something. He twisted in his seat to stare at Dad, who looked terrible. Like he’d had the same trouble Jared had sleeping. More even. The bags under his eyes looked like they were packed for vacation and not just an overnight. His sandy hair was all rucked up on one side, and he had crease lines on his face. He flexed and fisted his right hand, like it had fallen asleep and he was trying to wake it, only it didn’t look pale and bloodless as she thought it should in that case. Was it her imagination or were the knuckles dark, maybe even a little bruised? She looked closer. The knuckles were definitely swollen, one even cracked open. If things had gotten heated last night with him and Mom, he might have punched a wall … again. That was probably what Jared had heard. She glanced at her brother, ready to signal him about Dad’s hand, but he wasn’t looking at her.

Yeah, Jared wasn’t going to ask Dad about the noise. She didn’t blame him.

“Nothing,” she said. “School stuff.”

Dad lost interest. He started puttering in the kitchen, putting on coffee, making a whole pot, even though he was now the only one who drank it. Gran wasn’t supposed to have anything but decaf, if that.

“What time is Mom coming?” Emily asked. She caught sight of her latest poetry attempt, and turned her notebook over on the table to make sure no one got curious. She didn’t think Jared could read upside down, but she wasn’t taking any chances.

Dad didn’t answer. When she looked up to see what the problem was, she found him frozen in the middle of the kitchen, like someone had hit his pause button.

But then he snapped out of it and headed for the refrigerator, not sparing Emily a glance. “I’m not so sure she is. We got into another fight last night. She … said she needed time.”

“Time for what?” Jared asked. He sounded suspicious enough for the both of them.

Emily realized she was holding her breath waiting on the answer.

“I don’t know,” Dad said, raking a hand through his hair and rucking up the other side as well. “I’m not a mind-reader. Time to figure out what she wants, I guess. I told her this wouldn’t work—two households, towns apart. You both have school, commitments, meets, and practices. She can’t tear you out of your routines. Maybe she’ll change her mind once she cools down.”

Emily went cold. Heart-stoppingly, mind-numbingly cold. She had a horrible thought building to the point where it was going to burst out of her.

“You chased her off,” she said. Like the poem, the words just poured out.

Dad turned slowly as he closed the refrigerator door, and Emily was afraid about how he’d react, but his voice was calm, quiet, as he said, “Why would I do that?”

Emily had no answer.

“So you think Mom will call?” she pushed. Jared coughed suddenly, as though warning her to stop.

“Or text or something,” her father said, not at all concerned. “Look, you have your schedules cleared for the day. Why don’t we do something together, just the three of us? When was the last time we did that?”

Emily had no idea. Maybe never. She and Jared exchanged a look.

“We could go to a movie, maybe that new superhero film. Go out for pizza.”

“It’s a little early for pizza,” Jared said.

“Now, maybe, but not after the movie. The early show probably starts around ten or eleven.”

She couldn’t believe her father was acting like all this was nothing. Like he hadn’t just brought their world to a screaming halt. Mom was gone, and he was talking about pizza?

And then a really terrible thought occurred to her. Worse than her last. It had been a wall Dad had hit last night, hadn’t it?

“I’m going to call Mom,” she announced. At that moment, she didn’t care what Dad thought or what he’d do.

She grabbed her cell phone out of her pocket and told it to dial Mom, pushing the button for speakerphone so they could all hear.

There wasn’t a single ring before it went straight to voicemail, and Mom’s cheerful greeting sliced through the silence, the same one she’d had forever. “Hello, you’re reached Diane. You know what to do. Talk with you soon!” With, not to, because one way was a dialogue and the other a speech, so said her mother.

The pain nearly knocked her out of her seat. She looked at her father and brother, one staring at the phone, face locked down like a vault, the other, also staring at the phone, looking … she couldn’t think of a word for it but vulnerable. Her tough, sometimes intimidating brother looked like she felt.

She couldn’t take it anymore. She jabbed the button to take it off speaker and ran with the phone to her room, pressing it to her face as she ran. “Mom, it’s Emily.” Her voice cracked with emotion. “Dad says you’re not coming, but—”

She slammed her door behind her, shutting the rest of them out.

Jared stared after his sister in shock. She was always the peacemaker. The people-pleaser. For her to challenge their father … Nothing about any of this was right. And now Dad was looking at him, waiting. For what, he had no idea.

It seemed like the moment of truth. He could ask Dad about the noise. Part of him desperately wanted to so Dad could explain it away. He didn’t even know what he was worried about, and that was part of the problem. Dad would ask. And he’d get worked up about whatever answer Jared might give. Jared could tell by his lowered brow that Dad was worked up already, either by Mom’s disappearing act or Emily’s behavior. Dad had been so calm so far … with Emily. Would the same extend to him?

“What about you?” Dad said, studying him.

“What about me?” he asked, baffled.

“Pizza and a movie? Or we can go out and shoot some hoops. There must be something you want to do today.”

Spend it with Mom.

“Sleep,” he said, getting up from the table.

He hadn’t eaten breakfast, but he didn’t have the stomach for it. He couldn’t believe his father. Acting like it was nothing, like parents were interchangeable. Like he and Emily could be bribed by the miracle of time with their father. Or maybe it was the pizza and movie that were supposed to be the draw. Whatever. They weren’t kids to be won over with treats.

He felt sick. Empty. He’d been so stupid, refusing to talk to Mom after she moved out, holding it against her like it was her fault. Punishing her. His gut twisted. Maybe if he hadn’t, she’d have known how much she was needed. Loved. She wouldn’t have let the fight with Dad chase her off.

He went back to his room and grabbed his phone off the charger where he’d left it. He added his voice to Emily’s, leaving yet another voicemail. “Mom, when you get this, please call. Please, please. I’m so sorry for how I’ve been. I love you. And miss you. Emily is beside herself. We both are. Please come back.”

He immediately followed it up with a text, just in case. I love you. Please call.

He held the phone in his hands for a full five minutes that seemed like a year, waiting for a response, even though it seemed his mother’s phone must be off. If she had thinking to do, she probably wouldn’t want them interrupting or adding their needs to hers, but damn, she had to know how they felt. How much they cared. Maybe it would help with the thinking process. Maybe she was already on her way back and just couldn’t use the phone while driving.

He wished he believed it.

He heard Gran get up and go to the bathroom. He heard all kinds of strange noises coming from there and vowed he wouldn’t use it for at least a half hour. But he was waiting for her in the hall as she came out.

“Jared!” she said, loudly. The sound bounced around the hallway, and Jared knew he couldn’t ask Gran about the noise, even if there was a chance it had woken her too. Dad would hear everything. “I was afraid I’d missed seeing you and Emily off.”

He froze. “I, uh—”

Emily flew out of her room and into Gran’s arms. Gran stumbled back a step as she caught her.

“Mom’s gone,” Emily said, sobbing, barely understandable. “She and Dad got into another fight, and she’s not coming for us.”

“What?” Gran looked up at Jared for confirmation.

“That’s what Dad says,” he answered.

And suddenly Dad was there at the end of the hallway where it opened onto the rest of the house.

“Diane’s not coming,” he confirmed.

Emily’s sobs got louder, and Gran’s arms tightened around her.

“Mom, why don’t I make you breakfast and we can talk?” Dad said.

Jared wondered if Gran would get something better than frozen waffles. It was a stupid thought, pointless in the face of everything else, but he didn’t think Dad knew how to cook. It was always Mom. Or cereal. Or Gran if they were over at her house.

Gran bent to kiss the top of Emily’s head. Not that she had to bend a lot. Gran had always been small and slight. A little wisp of a woman with blowy dandelion hair.

“Come on,” she said to Emily. “I bet you haven’t eaten either. I’ll make you some hot chocolate while your Dad fries up some eggs. I taught him that much, anyway. Bet he still remembers.” She caught Jared up in her look. “You too, young man. You need to eat. Your mother will come around. Meanwhile, you need to feed those muscles of yours.”

Jared still didn’t want to eat, but he didn’t have anything better to do. Not until Mom answered. Or Aaliyah woke up. She still hadn’t responded to him from last night.

He nodded and led the way into the kitchen, since he was in the way where he was.

He got out plates and stuff while Gran made them hot cocoa using heated up milk instead of microwaved water. Dad cooked eggs and Emily made toast after blowing her nose half a dozen times and washing her face and hands. They all pretended it was perfectly normal. No one talked about Mom, at least not after Gran pulled Dad aside to ask what was going on in what she thought was a whisper. He flashed a glance at Jared and Emily and promised they’d talk in the car when he dropped her home. Because Gran’s car was in the shop due to what she called “a little fender bender.” And after all the fuss Dad made about having a driver in the house. She didn’t look satisfied with being put off, but she didn’t push it. People generally didn’t with Dad.

It was all so pretend-fine that he wanted to scream.

It wasn’t fifteen minutes after they left that his and Emily’s phones lit up.

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