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Authors: Heather Balog

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BOOK: The Dead of Summer
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“Hey, Kennedy. How have you been? Haven’t seen you around in weeks.”

“Yeah, I’ve been really busy with this little thing called school the last few months,” I explained with a raise of my own eyebrow. Mine, however, had been lovingly plucked by Lindy. Or maybe I should say, painfully plucked.

Marnie clutched her chest and attempted to appear aghast. “You’ve been ditching me to go to. . .
school
? How dare you!”

“I know, I know. I’m terrible aren’t I?” I gave her a smile and she laughed, throwing her head back so far I could see the row of cavities lining up molar after molar. I cringed and glanced away.
Didn’t she have dental coverage?

“So how did you do this year? All A’s I bet,” Marnie said as she shoved the barcode of the first book underneath the scanner.

I squirmed a little, not sure how to answer that question. I guess Marnie assumed that since I was a frequent library goer, I was smart. In fact, that was probably true for ninety-nine percent of frequent library goers, but in my particular case, it wasn’t. Oh, sure I had a certain intelligence. I was a pretty good speller and grammar didn’t really trip me up as much as my teenage counterparts, whose only experience with reading was often in the form of poorly abbreviated text messages. But as far as school went, well, that was definitely a horse of a different color. You see, no matter how hard I tried at school, my grades just weren’t, well,
good
. They were pretty good, once upon a time, before I came to Novella, before I became friends with Lindy. But ever since then, I don’t know, school seemed less interesting, homework seemed boring, and life seemed better off without those restrictions. I’d much rather curl up with a book about a math genius who finds love rather than figure out algebraic problems using the quadrilateral hypotenuse to solve them. I’d prefer to read about Hercules Poirot in the Orient instead of watching a snooze-worthy film in history class. And most of all, I’d rather be hanging out with Lindy than dissecting a frog in biology. It was much more fun.

I chewed nervously on my bottom lip as I considered my answer for Marnie. For some bizarre reason, I wanted to impress her. I don’t know, it wasn’t like she was doing a whole lot to impress me. Hell, her lipstick was smeared all over her teeth for God’s sake. Yet, there was something about her being an adult that made me want her to hold me in high regard. So I lied.

“I did awesome. Straight A’s,” I replied, beaming.

Marnie clapped her hands. “Oh, your mama must be so proud! High school is so hard! And straight A’s? Wow, that’s something.”

I bobbed my head up and down. “Yes, she certainly was!” There was definitely one advantage to your mama being a shut-in recluse. . .even in a busybody town you were less likely to be caught in a lie about your life. I mean after all, my mama could hardly refute what I said, could she? It’s not like she had any social life whatsoever in the town other than being the subject of public scrutiny.

Mama didn’t used to be scared to go out when I was little. In fact, I think she even went to work at one time. It was only after we moved that she started getting squirrelly. In fact, the night she uprooted me began the weirdest experience of my life.

At first when we left, I thought Mama was heading deep into Texas so that we could live with Mama Grace, my mama’s own mama. But a nine-year-old really has no sense of direction I guess, because instead of heading south, we were actually headed east toward South Carolina. That is, after we headed west and north first.

In those months of traveling and cheap motels that smelled of dog pee and mildew, my mama went from a social and involved parent, to this timid wallflower who was afraid of her own shadow and let life pass her by. When we arrived in Novella, I was anxious to finally settle down and go to school and live like we had in Texas.

That’s when my mama finally told me we had to move because my daddy had been killed overseas and we weren’t allowed to live in our house anymore. I was devastated. I was sad that he was dead and I was mad at my mama for not telling me when it had happened. I had wanted to cry and kick and scream just like Stella Ann had done when her daddy had been hit by a sniper’s bullet in Afghanistan. Everyone at school had been super nice to Stella Ann and I wanted to have everyone be super nice to me, too, for once. Instead, my mama just ripped me up by the roots and dragged me away from everyone I had known. Hell, I didn’t even get to say goodbye to any of my friends. Not that I had many, other than Stella Ann.

When we first started living in Novella, Mama would drop me at the bus stop and wait for the bus to collect me. Later in the day, she picked me up with a smile, but she would scurry away before anyone could approach her or involve her in conversation. Despite the invites of busybody neighbors everywhere, my mama would retreat further and further into her shell. Those busybodies’ main purpose was to have something to gossip about, and let me tell you, a single mother in this town could definitely raise an eyebrow. Those ladies wanted to get inside the house and see if Mama had a man on the side or
anything
to report to the other gossipy ladies.

Once I became more self-sufficient, Mama let me walk to the bus stop myself, peeking through the curtains in the front room, making sure that I got there okay. When she felt that I was capable enough, she had me go to the corner store for milk, and then farther into town for other groceries.

Soon, I was doing all the errands and my mama was emerging from the house less and less. When I was thirteen I realized that she hadn’t actually left the sanctuary of our home in nearly six months.

Since it happened so slowly, the people in the town had long stopped asking how my mama was or where my mama was or saying “My goodness, it’s been an age since we’ve seen your mama!” I told them all sorts of lies at first, from Mama had broken her toe, to she suffered from debilitating migraines, but then everyone always wanted to tromp over to the house with chicken soup or a freshly baked pie, not only to show some Southern hospitality, but to snoop. So I realized that the less said, the better. Most people just accepted that my mama was weird and were content to spread rumors behind my back. At school, as long as I was friends with the great Lindy Lincoln, nobody seemed to bother me, though.

Marnie held up the book with the provocative cover, jerking me out of my reverie.

“This is an interesting choice.” Her eyes grazed the other two covers. “And out of alphabetical order, I see.”

My cheeks felt hot as Marnie slid the books back across the counter at me. “Thanks,” I mumbled, hoping she wouldn’t say anything else about the book.

“You seem a little embarrassed there,” Marnie teased as I gathered up my selections.

“It just looked different,” I said, the flush spreading down my neck. I was silently cursing myself for picking that book up. I looked like quite the little pervert now.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s different,” Marnie remarked with a sigh. “Too bad real life isn’t anything like we read in books.”

“How so?” I asked and then instantly regretted it. Of course Marnie’s life was nothing like the life the heroine on the cover of that book led. I doubted she had a husband or a boyfriend. She probably led a very lonely existence, with only books and her cats to keep her company.

Marnie didn’t seem offended, just sad. She shrugged and pointed to the book. “There’s no white knight in shining armor, my dear. It’s an illusion, a fairy tale that girls tell themselves to trick their minds into believing there’s someone out there that’ll be like these book boyfriends.” She shook her head sadly as if she was speaking from personal experience. “I’m telling you, they don’t exist.”

My mind wandered to Carson. I just met him, but he seemed like a great guy. Maybe not a white knight in shining armor, but still, he made my heart race. And I felt a connection with him that I had never felt before. Wasn’t that what love was all about? Someone who made you felt like that?

Not that he was interested in me, of course, but a girl could dream, couldn’t she? Ugh…Marnie was depressing me with her doomsday prophesies.

“Well, you never know,” I said cheerfully, trying to break free of the black cloud Marnie had created. “Maybe I’ll meet the perfect guy someday. Maybe he will be everything I’ve ever wished for.”

Marnie pulled her glasses off of her face, spit on the lenses, and then rubbed the moisture in with the tattered ends of her sweater. I cringed during this disgusting process, but kept my mouth shut. I once suggested Marnie get contacts instead of wearing those outdated glasses. Marnie had stared at me as if I were speaking some foreign language. I have not made any fashion suggestions since.

“Be careful what you wish for, my dear,” Marnie warned. “You just might get it someday.”

Marnie laughed and as it reverberated on the high pitched ceilings, it sounded like a witch’s cackle. I rolled my eyes as I waved goodbye to her and pushed against the door that led out of the building and into the stifling heat. Adults were always saying things like that. How bad could it possibly be if you got everything that you wished for?

FOUR

As I crossed the road to head home, I just
happened
to cross in front of Carson’s house. And just
happened
to glance up at the windows, wondering which one was his. Was it the one in the far corner of the house, overlooking those out of control bushes on the lawn? Was it in the back of the house where I couldn’t see? Or was it the one on the second story, the lone window. . .where Carson was now staring at me!

I saw his sheepish face and he lifted his hand in greeting. Chewing my lip, I halfheartedly waved back. I was going for a casual wave, but instead, I managed to look like my wrist was having a spasm and my hand was flapping like a duck’s wing.

My face flushed as I quickly averted my eyes from his gaze.
Oh my God! I hope he didn’t think I was looking for him.
As tempted as I was to look back, I resisted. Instead, I tucked my chin to my chest and practiced for speed-walking team tryouts, wondering if he was still watching me.

Carson and I lived about three blocks apart. By the time I got home, I was sweaty and red-faced; partially because of the heat and partially due to my embarrassment of being seen by him. I walked into our living room to find my mama on the frigging laptop again. They say
my
generation is completely dependent on and obsessed with technology? Ha! Mama was a hundred times worse than any teenager I know; she was totally addicted to her laptop.

“Hi, Mama,” I called out as I headed to the kitchen. My throat was scratchy, parched from the heat. I needed some water ASAP.

When I was nine and we had just moved here, I passed out after playing outside all day and ended up in the hospital. My mama had wrung her hands like a nervous wash woman and she paced back and forth next to my bed in the emergency room while they pumped me full of fluids to restore me to health. Mama was normally overprotective and worries too much, but I had never seen her that anxious before. I was all she had and she was all I had essentially, so we tended to take care of each other, our relationship a little different from most mothers and teenage daughters. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a giant pain in the butt with her smothering nature. Mama was constantly loving on me like I was five years old, and while it was nice to know you were loved, it could be a bit much, especially when you were fifteen years old and practically a woman. But I had to keep reminding myself that I was pretty much my mama’s only human contact on most days, so I needed to be more tolerant of her idiosyncrasies, as many as there were.

“Hiya, baby,” Mama called out to me from her perch in the living room. “You too old to kiss your mama or something?’ This was her usual response when I said hi after strolling in, but today, her voice sounded strained and uncomfortable. Maybe she was getting sick or something.

“I’ll be there in a minute!” I called back. “You want anything while I’m in the fridge?”

“Only if you’ll bring me a sweet piece of Kennedy pie,” Mama called back.

I rolled my eyes again and made a gagging motion, even though nobody was there to witness my mama’s obnoxious display of affection, or my reaction to it. I guess your parents embarrass you no matter what when you’re a teenager, even if there’s nobody around to see it. There’s just no way around it.

I walked back into the living room quickly, albeit reluctantly. I was now going to have to give my mama a blow by blow description of my day, and in turn, I’d be bored to tears with her description of her day, which probably included looking up recipes online and taking endless quizzes on Buzzfeed. I had no idea how doing nothing could fill an entire day, but my mama seemed to achieve it daily.

Despite Mama never leaving the house to go to work, we somehow had money to survive. I assumed that Mama had gotten insurance money when Daddy died, but I had wasn’t sure how we managed to stay afloat for all these years on what had to be a piddling amount. Unless he had a million dollar life insurance policy, there was no way we were living in this nice house, in this nice town for so long without Mama working. I wondered if Mama Grace sent her money or something, but I never dared to ask. Mama had hushed me angrily the last time I brought up Mama Grace and what I affectionately refer to as “our former life,” telling me we couldn’t talk about that any more.

“How was your day, Mama?” I asked, plopping down on our ugly rose-patterned couch that had come with the house, bottle of water in my hand. As I unscrewed the cap and leaned back, Mama slammed the laptop closed and offered me a strained smile.

“Great!” she replied, voice just a little too chipper. “Just wonderful. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

I stared at her for a second, my eyebrows slightly raised in reaction to her unnaturally high-pitched voice. “You sure you’re okay, Mama?” I asked, pressing the back of my hand against her forehead in a teasing manner, just like she would do when checking me for a fever.

Mama jumped to her feet. “Of course I’m okay, Sweetpea!” she tittered in a nervous voice, acting like a teenager with a crush or something.

BOOK: The Dead of Summer
8.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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