Authors: Alyson Noel
My voice ends on a high, frantic note that seems strangely out of place in this quiet Venice Beach neighborhood. And when Jennika noses the car into the drive, she’s barely come to a stop before I’ve already opened the door and made a mad dash for the house.
“I’m exhausted,” I tell her, using the key Harlan gave me to let myself in. “The meds are starting to kick in and…”
I’ve barely made it past the threshold before my knees fold and buckle beneath me, as Jennika rushes up from behind, anchors her fingers under my arms, and half-drags, half-carries me to the sofa bed where she eases me down onto the soft yellow sheets, props a pillow under my head, and carefully tucks the blanket around me as I drift into a deep pool of nothing.
* * *
I wake to the sound of Jennika’s phone—her Lady Gaga ringtone making it as far as the second verse before she rushes out of the kitchen and snatches it up from the recycled-glass table.
Careful to keep her voice muffled and low on the first
she checks on me, sees I’m awake, and repeats herself in her normal tone, chasing it with, “Yes, this is Jennika.” Which is soon followed by an incredulous, “
She squints in confusion, drops onto the nearest chair. Her free hand reaching for the Diet Coke she left on the side table, bringing it to her lips, then abandoning it to the table again before she can even take a first sip. And though I strain to hear the voice on the other side, all I can determine is that it sounds like a female.
I can’t be too sure.
“I’m sorry, but—” She shakes her head, her voice growing edgy, fingers plucking at the long silver necklace she favors this week. “I don’t get it. If you truly are who you claim to be, then why now? Where’ve you been all these years? It’s not like I haven’t tried to reach you, you know? But you were nowhere to be found. It’s like you fell off the face of the earth!”
When she catches me staring, she’s quick to abandon her spot and head for the kitchen, shooting me a backward glance that warns me to not even think about following.
I lay still, pretending to comply. But really I’m just waiting to hear the familiar sounds of Jennika settling—the screech of a chair sliding away from the breakfast table—before I creep toward the doorway and press my body hard against the wall in an effort to listen without being seen.
Trying to remember when she’d used that phrase before. So many people have come and gone from our lives—Jennika has made sure of that—but there’s only one she’s described in that way, as having dropped off the face of the earth.
There’s only one other person who’s proved to be even more elusive than Jennika and me: my dad’s mom. My long-lost grandmother, who, according to Jennika, didn’t even make it through her son’s funeral.
Paloma Santos is her name, and it’s only a moment before Jennika confirms it.
“Fine. Let’s just say that you are Paloma. You still haven’t answered my question, which is—why
? Why nearly seventeen years later? What could possibly be the point of all this? Do you have any idea how much you’ve missed?”
And while I have no idea how Paloma might’ve answered, since from where I stand the call is pretty one-sided, I do know that whatever she said was enough to silence Jennika. Other than a sudden hitch in her breath, it’s a while before she speaks up again.
“How—how did you know?” she asks, her voice growing thready, thin. The words soon followed by: “Well no, I’m afraid you
speak to her. It’s—it’s not a very good time.”
I press closer, daring to peek around the door frame. Spying a glimpse of Jennika now slumped over the breakfast table, one hand propping up her head, while the other clutches the phone to her ear. Her words coming quickly, hard to follow, when she says, “She’s a smart and beautiful girl. She’s a lot like her father. She’s got my green eyes and fair complexion, but the rest is all him. I’m sorry you missed it, Paloma, I really, truly am. But now is not a good time. We’re going through a bit of a rough patch. There’s been an … incident. And while I—
” Her spine straightens as she grips the phone tighter. “How could you possibly know about that?”
She turns toward the doorway, more as a precaution than having any real sense of my presence. But I’m quick to slip out of sight, biding my time until she pipes up again and I venture a peek.
She rocks the chair back on two legs, absently rolling the hem of her vintage Blondie concert tee between her forefinger and thumb. Jaw clenching as she nods, listens, nods again. Carrying on like that until I’m practically bursting with curiosity, wondering what the heck my long-lost grandmother might be confiding.
“Yes, I remember,” Jennika finally says, setting the chair right again and staring blankly at the table’s intricate zebra wood grain. “He loved you deeply. Respected you immensely. But he wanted to live his own life, his own way. He wanted a life outside of New Mexico. And now, after failing with him, you think you can get a second chance with Daire? Surely you’re joking—”
While the words sound strong, Jennika doesn’t. And I can’t recall one single time in all of our lives when I’ve seen her looking so lost and defeated.
“She’s been treated. Sedated. The first doctor in Morocco kept her heavily medicated, but it didn’t last. Nothing does. They just keep playing with the doses, trying to find something that clicks. They’re treating her like a guinea pig, and now they tell me they’re running out of choices. Claim they’re going to have to—” Her voice breaks as she covers her face with her hands. Taking a moment to steady herself before she straightens her spine and says, “They want to institutionalize her. Keep her under lock and key and heavy surveillance. And to be honest, I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t know what to do. I’ve taken some time off work, but soon enough I’ll have to return. I have bills to pay, a living to make, and it’s not like I can drag her along like I used to. She can’t fly, and even if she could, it’s not like I can keep her constantly drugged and restrained. And now you call. The last person I ever expected to hear from. Just out of the blue. How’s that for coincidence?” She laughs, but it’s not a real one, it’s more like a longing for one.
Her shoulders slump as she returns to heavy listening mode, her silence broken by occasional comments like “Herbs? Seriously? You think that’ll work?”
Followed by, “Paloma, with all due respect, you haven’t seen what I’ve seen—you have no idea what she’s capable of!”
And then, “So those are my choices? Really? Sixteen years of parenting and that’s what I’m left with? And excuse me for asking, but how can you be so sure? I hate to say it, but Django was just seventeen when you lost him!”
When she goes quiet again, I’m just about to bust in—just about to let her know I’ve heard every word—or at least Jennika’s part—and I’m not the least bit happy about it. They’re deciding my future without my consent. Not stopping to think that I might want a vote.
My arm outstretched, about to grab hold of her shoulder, really let her have it, when she turns, her smeary, red-rimmed eyes meeting mine, not the least bit surprised to find me lurking behind.
The phone dangling between long skinny fingers with bitten-down nails, her smile defeated, voice gone hoarse with unspent tears, as she says, “Daire, it’s your grandmother. She really needs to speak with you.”
“Close your window so I can crank up the heat—it’s cold out there.”
I glance over my shoulder long enough to shoot Jennika a scathing look, but I’ve been shooting her so many of them over the last few days it washes right over her. She’s grown as immune to my scowls as she has to my protests.
I bring my knees to my chest, allowing my heels to hang off the edge of the seat as my index finger prods the small square switch next to my armrest.
Pushing, then letting it go.
Pushing until it’s almost there—then lifting my finger and watching it pause.
The window rising and halting in annoyingly short little spurts, but she ignores that as well. Preferring to divert her attention to more pleasant things like driving within the lines and fiddling with the rental car’s radio—correctly assuming her refusal to acknowledge my game will bore me into obeying.
I force the window all the way up and shift toward the door until I can no longer see her. My shoulders hunched, arms hugging my knees, trying to make myself smaller, more distant, pretending that I’m not really here.
I wish I wasn’t here.
My forehead pressed flush to the window, I blow a small patch of foggy circles onto the glass as I say, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
It’s about the hundredth time that I’ve said it. The hundredth time I’ve shot her a disparaging look to go with it. But to her credit, she just looks at me sideways and says, “Trust me, I can’t believe I am either. But since neither of us could come up with a better solution, this is the solution that stuck.”
“You realize you’re abandoning me?” I gnash my teeth together, fight to get a grip on my temper—the fear I can’t shake no matter how many times we rehash it. “You do get that, right?” I twist in my seat, stare hard at her profile, but she just keeps her hands on the ten and two position, and her eyes on the long stretch of road that meanders ahead. “You’re putting me in the care of some crazy old man, so I can go live with some crazy old lady you’ve only met once.
And even then it was only for like ten seconds at my dad’s funeral. I mean, what kind of woman bails on her own son’s funeral?” I glare, challenging her to explain but only allowing a few seconds to pass before I’m at it again. “And yet, here you are, speeding across state lines so you can dump me off and be rid of me once and for all. Nice job, Jennika. Seriously. Way to parent.” My hands clench so hard my nails bite into my palms, leaving deep red crescent marks that take a while to fade.
I tell myself
. Do not say another word. It’s a waste of your time. Her mind is made up.
But I can’t commit. I’m far too wound up and it’ll only get worse. Despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter what I say or do at this point—doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference either way. Nice—mean—calm—freaked—the result is the same. Ever since Paloma called, I’ve tried them all, and the verdict hasn’t changed.
“It’s not like I was flooded with options.” Jennika looks at me, her gaze narrowed in a way I know all too well. “I could either send you to stay with your grandmother, or lock you away in some mental institution for an undetermined amount of time, where those doctors you hate so much promise to keep you in a permanently drugged state until they can come up with a better plan. And yeah, maybe you’re right, maybe I barely know Paloma, but as I’ve already told you, your father loved her dearly, never once said a bad word about her, and at least for the moment anyway, I’m afraid his endorsement will have to suffice. If it turns out she can’t help, then we’ll go to plan B. But, in the meantime, we all agreed this was the best way to proceed. Besides, Paloma promised to let me know right away whether or not she can help you.”
“And you trust her?” My lip curls to a sneer. “You trust some woman you don’t even know? You trust her to tell you the truth, to not drug me—or—or do something worse? And what about the guy she’s sent to meet us? You’re just going to hand me over to some creepy old man you’ve never even met? What if he’s a pervert or a serial killer—or
The accusation hangs heavy between us, a barrier that cannot be breached—or at least that’s what I think until she says, “I trust
.” And when she looks at me, my throat goes so lumpy I can’t speak. “I trust that what you see and experience is all too real for you, even if I can’t see or understand it myself. But, Daire, we’ve been given a chance, an opportunity to help you in a nonclinical, all-natural kind of way, and I feel we have to at least give it a go. It kills me to sit back and watch you suffer like this. As your mother, I should be able to help you, spare you the pain you’re going through, and yet everything I’ve done so far, every choice I’ve made, only seems to make you feel even worse than before. So yeah, I think we have to at least give Paloma a chance—see what she can do. You may not know her, but she is your grandmother. And just so you know, I would never just drop you off and hand you over to some creepy, old, serial killer, pervert as you claim. He happens to be Paloma’s close and trusted friend. He’s also a well-respected, much-sought-after veterinarian. I did Google him, you know.”
“Oh, so you
him? Oh, well, that changes everything then, doesn’t it? What could I possibly worry about now that I know you’ve conducted such a thorough Internet search?” I roll my eyes, shake my head, and gaze out the window again, adding, “As for my dad—if Grandma’s so great, then why’d he leave home at sixteen? Hunh? Do you have an excuse for that too?” I frown. Slide a finger under my bandage where I pick at the thick trail of scabs on my arm, waiting to see how she’ll wiggle out of that one.
“For your information, Django wasn’t running from
—he was running from what he considered to be a stifling life in a very small town.”
A stifling life in a very small town?
” I repeat the words back to her, my voice loaded with sarcasm. “Charming, Jennika, seriously charming.” I huff under my breath, push my hair off my face. “Do you even listen to the things you say? You actually sound happy about condemning me to live in the same stifling Siberia my dad couldn’t wait to escape.”
“So you’d prefer the institution? Is that what you’re saying?” She looks right at me, her green eyes narrowed on mine, but I refuse to respond. “Besides,” she continues, pushing her pink strip of hair off her forehead and tucking it behind her multipierced ear. “According to you, Paloma’s already helped. According to you, you’ve been feeling much better since we got you off the drugs and onto the herbs, and you certainly seem to be doing better from what I can see.”