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Authors: Robin Stevenson

Tags: #Young Adult, #JUV013060, #Contemporary

Escape Velocity (16 page)

BOOK: Escape Velocity
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“Tell me what Heather looks like.”

“Short,” I say. I hold my hand at my chin. “About this tall. And really skinny. Frail-skinny, you know? And long hair, down her back. Blond, but there's lots of gray in it too. When I saw her before, she was wearing a long skirt and sort of a scarf or maybe a shawl? Something kind of fringy around her shoulders anyway. She had a big backpack with her, and a bag too. She looks…” I shrug. “Eccentric, I guess. You'd notice her.”

“Are you going to stay here? Shall I bring her here if I find her?”

I nod. “If she'll come, yeah.”

She stands up and buttons up the front of her voluminous black duffel coat. “Wish me luck then.”

Watching her go, I think about Dana Leigh's words:
Don't go looking for trouble. Life's hard enough without
stirring up hornets' nests.
Cold fingers on the back of my neck, a shudder deep inside. I wonder if we are making a mistake, if I am doing something I will regret. But I watch Justine walk out the door and past the glass window, and I say nothing.

Waiting is agony. I chew my nails until they are ragged edges lining crescents of raw pink skin. I order two hot chocolates, one after another, and the combination of sugar and caffeine makes me shaky and nauseous. Time stretches and slows to a trickle. Every hour or so I look at my watch and discover that only five minutes have passed.

I feel like pacing, but I don't want to look like a crazy person, so I force myself to sit still even though my bones are aching to crawl right out of my skin. I figure that even if Heather shows up, Justine might not get a chance to talk to her until after the reading. I pick at my hangnail until it is bleeding; then I push it against a beige paper napkin, over and over, making a pattern of little bloody prints.

I wonder which section of
Escape Velocity
my mother is reading and hope she doesn't read one of Alice's parts. I feel sort of sick when I think about Justine listening to those words and knowing that messed-up Alice is somehow based on me. Or on my mother's imagined version of me anyway. I wish I never told Justine about that. It's awful enough that my own mother sees me that way. I don't really want anyone else to know about it.

A group of girls comes in and sit at the table beside mine. One of them is the girl I met at the drop-in center, the one with the snake-bite piercings, but she looks right past me without a flicker of recognition, so I just slosh the dregs of my hot chocolate around in the bottom of my mug and say nothing.

Every time the door opens, my heart speeds up and my hands start to sweat. An older couple; a mom with two boys, their hair buzzed army-short; another group of teens. I look at my watch again. 8:45
PM
. My hopes seesaw wildly. I can't decide if finding Heather gets more or less likely the longer I wait. If Heather wasn't there, surely Justine wouldn't bother staying for the whole reading. On the other hand, if Heather is there, what is taking them so long?

I try to read a newspaper someone has left on a table, but I can't concentrate long enough to get through a single sentence. Finally I give up, lay my head down on my arms and think about what I will say if Heather shows up.
Hi, I'm Lou. Your granddaughter.
Nice to finally meet you. So what's the story with you
and Zoe anyway?

Or not.

The door opens again, and I lift my head and look up as Justine calls my name. She is alone, clutching the folds of her coat closed, standing by the doorway. I walk over to her. “No luck, I guess.”

“She was there,” Justine says, out of breath. Her cheeks are red, and her words trip over each other. “Come on, quick.”

I follow her out the door, slipping my arms into the sleeves of my jacket as the cold air fills my lungs. “What happened?”

She walks in the direction of the library. I follow her, half running to keep up with her long strides. “She slipped out right after the reading, while people were still asking questions. So I followed her out and tried to talk to her.” Justine stops walking and turns to me. In the streetlight, I can see a thin sheen of sweat glistening beneath her eyes. “She wouldn't come with me. She thought I was messing with her.”

“Did you tell her I was here? Waiting for her?”

“Yeah.” Justine hesitates. “She said she doesn't have any grandchildren.”

I stare at her. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. Lou, she was heading up Blanshard. I don't know where she's going but…”

I break into a jog. “I'm going to try to catch her.” I glance over my shoulder. “I'll call you, okay?” I run as fast as I can, right past the main entrance to the library, praying my mother won't walk out and see me, and around the corner onto Blanshard. I dodge a middle-aged couple leaving a restaurant, run past a group of guys my age, and then I see her. She's a block away, but from behind, even in the dark, I am sure it is her. When I get close, I slow down to a fast walk, not wanting to freak her out. I fall into step beside her.

“Hi,” I say. “I'm Lou.”

She looks at me blankly. She is wearing a heavy overcoat, unzipped, over the same long black sweater she was wearing when I saw her before. Her gray-blond hair is tied back in a loose ponytail.

“Your granddaughter,” I add.

She shakes her head. “You've got me mixed up with someone else. I don't have grandkids.”

She starts to move away from me, and I reach out a hand, touch her arm. She flinches, and I let my hand fall to my side. “You're Heather, right? My mother is Zoe.”

She stops walking and stares at me. The blank look is gone, replaced with a sharp focus tinged with suspicion.

“Zoe? Zoe is your mother?”

I nod. I feel like the air has all been sucked out of my lungs and I can't talk. Can't catch my breath. My back is slick with sweat trickling down my spine and sticking my shirt to my skin.

Heather starts to laugh, but there's nothing warm about it. It's a witch's cackle, a nicotine wheeze. “Zoe's daughter. Well, how about that.” She looks past me, over my shoulder. Her gaze is so intent that I turn to see what she is looking at, but there is nothing there except the lights of the movie theater across the street. “You don't look like her,” she says.

“She says I look like my dad.” A drop of rain lands on my face, and another, and then within seconds it is pelting down cold and heavy, the kind of rain that soaks you in seconds. I pull my hood over my head and shove my hands into my pockets. Heather doesn't seem to notice.

“She told you about me?” Heather turns back to me and narrows her eyes, squinting at me.

I shake my head. “Not exactly. I saw you at her reading the other night. You were clapping…and I wondered… I wondered who you were.” I hesitate, but I have nothing to lose by asking. “What happened between you and her? How come you don't see each other?”

Heather starts walking, and for a second I think she is leaving, but she stops under an awning and shakes a cigarette out of a pack. “Zoe hasn't told you?”

I shake my head. “She hasn't told me anything,” I say, and my voice comes out sounding so bitter than it actually surprises me. “I didn't even know you existed.”

“Makes us even. I never knew she had a kid.” Heather lights her cigarette and takes a long drag. “She's doing all right, though, Zoe. Turned out okay. Always was a smart girl. Pretty too.” She flashes me a grin, and I can't help noticing that she's missing a couple of teeth. I picture Zoe's perfect white smile and wonder how she could possibly let her own mother live like this.

“She never told you about me?” I ask.

Heather shakes her head. “Well, we're not close.”

I almost laugh at that understatement, but it isn't really funny at all. “I've never lived with her,” I say. “I'm only staying with her now because my dad's sick. She left right after I was born.” I shiver and wrap my arms around myself, tucking my hands inside my sleeves. “I was kind of hoping you might know why.”

Heather doesn't answer right away. I'm scared she might just walk away without telling me anything at all. I study her face, searching for any resemblance. My mother is taller and stronger-looking, but they both have that same Scandinavian fairness. Heather's eyes are blue but they're faded, the eyelids drooping, the skin beneath them so dark it looks bruised.

“Did you read her book?” she asks me abruptly.

I know without asking which book she means. “
Escape
Velocity
. Yeah, I read it.”

“Then you already know plenty, don't you?” There's an angry edge to her words, as if she thinks I'm playing games with her.

“I don't understand,” I say. “I mean, I get that some parts are true. Like about how she felt.”

“It wasn't right,” Heather says. “Putting personal things in a book like that. Pretending she made it all up. I'm not stupid, you know.”

“You read it then.”

“I read enough of it,” Heather says. “Didn't finish it. I got better things to do with my time.” Her lips twitch in a quick grimace. “Mind you, she always was ambitious. Always bought into that middle-class idea of success.” Her voice is scornful, dismissive, and for the first time, she reminds me of Zoe.

“When did you last see her? I mean, not counting just recently?”

“Dunno. Been ten years maybe.”

The rain on the awning above is a loud drumming, and every few seconds a cold fat drip lands on my head. “Do you have somewhere to go?” I want to ask if she is really homeless, but it doesn't seem polite. “Where do you live?” I ask instead.

“Staying with a friend,” she says. “Not far from here.”

“Can I see you again? Wait a minute.” I fumble in my pocket for a piece of paper, write down Zoe's phone number and address, and hand it to her. “Please?”

She looks taken aback. “What for?”

“You're my grandmother,” I say. “And…well, maybe I could help? In some way?” I feel like an idiot, and I can see the skepticism in her eyes.

She laughs, mocking me. “Help? And what makes you think I need
help
?”

My cheeks burn. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you or anything. Just, I don't know. Are you, you know, okay?”

“Dandy.” She takes a last drag on her cigarette and tosses the butt into the gutter. “What do you want from me?”

I am still holding the scrap of paper out toward her. I feel like an idiot, but I guess I've got nothing to lose by telling her the truth. “Zoe won't talk about the past at all,” I admit. “Um, I thought if I understood what happened with the two of you, then maybe I'd understand why my mother never wanted anything to do with me.”

Heather takes the piece of paper and crumples it in her hand. Her eyebrows draw together, and two deep furrows appear between them. “If you want to blame me, go right ahead. Your mother does.”

“I don't want to blame anyone,” I protest.

She gives a short laugh. “Right.”

“I don't.”

Heather shakes her head. “If you don't like your mother, go back to your dad. None of my business, is it? Leave me alone.” She turns and starts to walk away from me.

“Wait,” I say. “I didn't mean to upset you.”

She doesn't look back. I take a few steps after her, catching up easily. “Heather. Can I call you that? I'd really like to get to know you. Because we're family, right? Doesn't that count for something?”

That stops her. She turns and looks at me. “In my experience, no. It doesn't.”

My eyes sting with rain and tears. “Please. Can we go for coffee? Or something?”

“Go home, kid.” She sticks my crumpled paper into her pocket. “Go home.” And she turns and walks away. I stand and watch as she gets smaller and smaller and finally disappears down a side street. Gone.

Eighteen

I
get home before Zoe. There's a message from Justine, asking me to call her when I get in, but I don't feel like talking. I slip a copy of
Escape Velocity
from a stack of identical copies under Zoe's desk and take it into my room. Heather seemed to think it held all the answers, but I haven't found the ones I've been looking for. I flip the pages until I come to the first section in Alice's point of view. It has always made me angry that my mother would base a character on me when she has never made any effort to know the real me at all. And yet, even though Alice isn't really like me, and even though she ends up being so screwed-up, I can't help caring about the fictional child in this story. I read her words again.

I was twelve years old when my mother left. Maybe
it shouldn't have been such a shock. She'd been leaving
for years, slowly, piece by piece: the sense of humor, then
the patience, the affection I barely remember but have
glimpsed in old photographs. Depression, my father told
me, whispering. Since Billy's birth, or maybe before that.
She stayed in a hospital a couple of times, but it didn't
help. It seemed to me that my mother didn't care about
anyone but herself.

Then, long after we'd all given up hope, everything
changed. She seemed to be getting better, laughing at my
feeble jokes, tickling Billy, making elaborate dinners as if
we were having company even though we never did. She
looked different too: the blacks and grays of her wardrobe
turning to pinks and reds and golds, the old runners
traded for high-heeled shoes, her lips stained startling
shades of fuschia, burgundy, maroon. She talked fast,
bought us unlikely gifts, dragged me and Billy outside
to dance in the rain. Billy loved it, but the change made
me uneasy.

One night, after I was in bed, I heard my parents
fighting. My father called her crazy.

BOOK: Escape Velocity
8.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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