“Am I going to be happy here?”
8 Ball says: Outlook so-so.
“Is Mom going to change her mind about the divorce?”
8 Ball says: Don’t count on it.
“What’s wrong with me?”
8 Ball says: Ask again later.
. . .
My new thing lately is burning candles. I have a blueberry and a maple spice candle going now. It smells like blueberry pancakes. I love the ambiance of candles.
I am running out of candles.
Dad would have never allowed me to burn one candle, let alone two, in my bedroom, but Mom wants to win me over so badly that she’s pretty much allowing me to do whatever I want. Of course, what I really want is for her to call Dad and say she’s made a horrible mistake. And then she and I would fly back home, leaving Phil in the dust. Which there’s not a lot of here in this big, gaudy house because people come every week to clean it and the indoor pool. I think it’s crazy to have a pool when your house sits right next to the lake, but what do I know? There’s a lawn service for the front and back yards, someone to polish all of the windows, and someone to cook if no one else feels like it. I don’t even have to do my own laundry, but I do. No one is touching my panties or bras.
Phil is a trust fund baby. He doesn’t even have to work. Part of me wonders if that’s why Mom is with him, and if he suddenly lost his money, would she go back to Dad?
I lose myself for a few minutes as I imagine someone robbing the bank that has all of Phil’s money in it.
Mom and Phil are determined to entertain me. They don’t understand that I want to be invisible, that I don’t want attention, that I want to be left alone. There’s always somewhere to go or something to do, but I wish that things would just settle into something comfortingly dull.
They do take me to Universal Studios, which is really cool and I could totally go again, and to Disney World, which I was less impressed with, but that’s probably because I ate too much and got sick before we’d ever left the park. Sailing is definitely cool and Phil almost manages to break into my good graces because of it.
There is a dock leading out into what Phil calls the Johns Cove where his sailboat and a little rowboat are tethered. I snicker. He lives at Johns Lake on Johns Point Drive and calls his piece of the water Johns Cove. And he’s named his boat The Boat. How original. Mom and I climb aboard while Phil releases the boat ties. I sit away from them both at the back of the boat, which I guess might be 20 feet; it’s not very big. As he takes us out into the little cove that gradually leads out into the lake, I close my eyes and let the breeze caress my face. It feels like we’re hardly moving and I have to open my eyes again just to make sure.
Phil cuts the engine and unfurls the sail once we’re clear of the cove, which is mostly deserted, but boats dot the lake everywhere. As we begin to move, he turns around to look at me.
“What do you think, Bella?”
That you’re too young for my mom. That you highlight your hair. That you have no imagination. “It’s cool,” I say.
Beside him, Mom giggles and leans over to kiss his cheek. I roll my eyes and turn to look back the way we came. The lake is wide, calm, and I feel like jumping in the water. But Mom won’t let me because she says the water is dirty, and besides, “We have a beautiful pool that you can swim in any ole time you want!”
I would never, though. I remember the McCarty’s rule about never swimming alone, and never swimming in the deep end. And since I have no interest in hanging out with Mom and Phil more than I have to, I avoid them when they’re swimming. Watching them make goo-goo eyes at each other makes my heart ache. Plus, it makes me want to gag.
Everything just seems so perfect for them. For Mom. It’s like Dad and Edward don’t even exist for her anymore.
. . .
I don’t know who she is now, I text to Edward. She’s acting like her and I are best friends.
He doesn’t respond until almost an hour later, probably off having fun, and by then I’m almost in tears. That’s better than you fighting with her, right? I’m sorry, Bella. Come home.
Bellabean: It’s only been a few weeks, though.
Edward: Doesn’t matter. If you’re ready to come back, you’re ready. Forget her. I’m sorry I ever thought you should go.
There he is. I smile and gurgle out a laugh.
“I go all around the world but always remain in the corner. What am I?” he types.
Bellabean: “Fievel the mouse.”
Edward: Can you talk?
Squealing, I push the button.
“Hey, Bella. So things aren’t going so well?”
“That’s not it,” I sigh. It’s so good to hear his voice, familiar and warm and concerned for me. “Things are … too perfect. It’s like they’re putting on a show for me. They’re too happy, they laugh too much, they touch and kiss too much. It makes me sick.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say.
“And don’t say you’re fine.”
“Well, I am. That’s just it. I’m not really anything. How’s Dad?”
“He’s … adjusting. Been working a lot.”
“What about you? What were you doing when you got my message?”
He hesitates when he speaks, but his voice is all smiles. “Swimming at Emmett’s. With Dooby. Mrs. McCarty was pissed, you should have seen her. She tried to haul Dooby out of the pool and fell in. I think Emmett kind of pushed her, though.”
“Bet he’s in trouble.”
“Grounded. For life.”
We laugh. “Is that where you are now? At the pool?”
“No! Emmett’s grounded. They made me go home.”
“Sorry.” I want to hear him keep talking. “So what are you doing now? What did you do last night? Have you seen Rose and Alice? Tell me everything.”
“One question at a time, you magpie. I’m making myself a sandwich right now. On white bread. Oscar Meyer ham, Sargento swiss cheese-”
“Not that kind of everything,” I laugh.
There’s a shrug in his voice when he answers. “I watched a movie last night with Dad. There’s really not that much to tell. It … it’s not the same without you, Bella. The house is too quiet.”
I swallow the lump in my throat. “I don’t know if Mom would pay for a plane ticket home this soon yet.”
“She doesn’t have to. Dad will fork over his left kidney if he has to.”
Relief washes through my entire body. It helps to know that I have a way home if I need one. It helps knowing I’m not a case of out of sight, out of mind.
“I’ll stay for a bit longer. It’s … nice here. I’m going out on the little boat later. Just me.”
“Just you? Is that safe?”
“Sure. I have to stay in the inlet, in sight of the house. I’ve done it before,” I say with a note of pride.
“Wish I was there with you.”
“Wish I was there with you.”
. . .
We’re at the Wine and Canvas shop when the glass Mom’s been drinking from crashes to the floor and splatters across the feet of the woman next to her. In the middle of painting my Starry Night artwork, I jump and my brush drags a black line across two of my stars.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Mom cries and drops to her knees in front of the woman, furiously wiping the hem of her apron against the woman’s white sneakers. Well, what used to be white anyway.
The woman backs away from Mom with a scowl on her face, bumps into the canvas behind her, and then says a very bad word. The S word. “Look what you made me do,” she howls at Mom. “This is a silk shirt.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but why would you wear a silk shirt if you knew you’d be painting?” Mom asks shrilly.
Mom and the lady ignore the Wine and Canvas girl’s attempt to calm them. Both of their faces are red, their eyes slitted, and their mouths wide open. It’s enough to make me wish I could disappear on the spot.
“How dare you! This is your fault.”
“I said I was sorry. I’ll buy you another pair of shoes, but it’s not my fault you’re a klutz and backed into your own painting.”
Which is kind of true, I’m thinking, but Mom really shouldn’t have said that. Before Wine and Canvas Girl can utter another word, the lady swings out her arm and cracks Mom against the face. There’s not a sound in the room afterwards, just the echo of skin against skin. I’m just … aghast.
And then? Then it’s bedlam and they go at it until both of their shirts are destroyed beyond repair. The cops are called. Both Mom and the lady are cited for disturbing the peace and have to attend anger management courses.
Mom is eerily silent on the way home and totally ignores me. When Phil hears about it, he can’t stop laughing, and only then does she loosen up. In the living room, she all but attacks him, kissing him like crazy and running her hands all up and down his chest. It’s like I’m not even there.
She is a stranger.
. . .
It’s early on Saturday morning when I decide I’m going to boat out farther than the inlet this time. I’ve gotten pretty good at rowing and I know the inlet backwards and forwards now. I want to explore.
Waving back at the house, I say my goodbyes and head for open water.
I’m not sure how long I row out in the lake, but by the time I notice that the skin of my arms feels tight (and so do my muscles), I realize that I forgot to put on sunblock. I’m getting a farmer’s sunburn. Great.
Sore inside and out, I trudge back up to Phil’s concrete and glass mansion. The sun is high in the sky, so it must be at least noon. My stomach agrees. I wonder what Kate, the cook, has made me for lunch. I hope it’s more of her egg salad. I wave to old Quil as I pass through the back yard. He’s forever weeding the place and I feel sorry for him, old as he is, having to work in the sun like a slave.
No sooner have I stepped inside the door than I am knocked suddenly and forcefully to the floor.
“You, young lady, are grounded forever from the boat.”
I hold my hand against my stinging face and look up at mom incredulously. She hit me? She’s never hit me before, not even when I was younger. My shoulder is aching from where I fell against the door frame.
“Get up and go to your room. Now!”
I scramble to my feet and race up the stairs like hell is at my heels. My whole body hurts, but it’s nothing compared to the pain inside.
. . .
I wake up hours later and it’s dark and my face and arms are burning. When I look at myself in the mirror, I see that my face is bright red and my left cheek has a tiny bruise. I feel like a wreck that’s been fried. Even worse, I realize that Mom never even came up to check on me.
“Edward,” I sob.
He loses the easy tone of his voice. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
I try to talk and can’t. All that comes out is she and boat and sunburn.
“You have a sunburn?”
“Yes,” I wail. “It hurts.”
“It must if you’re crying.” Now he sounds a little amused.
“She hit me!” I yell.
“What? Who, mom?”
“No, the boogieman. Yes, mom. She hit me!”
And so I tell him in between hiccups about my boat adventure, my sunburn, and then mom.
“Now don’t get mad at me,” he begins.
Too late. I’m mad already because he isn’t.
“But I thought you weren’t allowed out past the inlet.”
“But I waved. I told her I was going,” I insist.
“Bella. I’m sorry. She shouldn’t have hit you.”
“But--. Are you okay?”
“No! I feel so alone. I want to come home. Will you ask Dad? Please?”
My bedroom door opens and Mom comes in. Her eyes are red and her hair is mussed like she’s been tugging at it with her hands. She sees I’m talking on my phone, then she gets a good look at my face.
“Yes,” Edward says. “I’ll ask him right—”
“Oh no, Bella. I’m so sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to hit you that hard.”
She takes my stiff body in her arms and rocks me back and forth so hard that I drop my phone.
But she’s crying, wailing actually, like I was moments ago, and she isn’t listening to me. She’s also not letting me escape her embrace.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she cries and gets my cheek all wet with her tears. The way she is pressing my sore cheek against hers hurts.
“Mom, please,” I say, but she just tightens her arms around me.
“Tell me you forgive me. Please tell me you forgive me.”
I don’t, but I don’t think she’s going to let me go unless I tell her that I forgive her. So, with bitter gall in my stomach, I do. She releases me immediately and then cradles my face in her hands.
“You missed lunch. Are you hungry?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t feel well. Can I just stay in my room for the rest of the night?”
“I’ll bring you up a tray,” she says and kisses my bruise. It hurts.
Then she’s gone and I’m looking at my bedroom door, which she left open. I walk over quietly, then close and lock it. I wonder where Phil is.
And then my phone rings. It’s Edward’s ring tone.
“What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
. . .
Edward wants me to ask Phil if Mom is taking medication for her condition. I don’t find him alone until two days later at breakfast. When I ask, he says Mom is still in bed and that we should probably let her sleep because she had a bad night.
“Does she … you know … take medicine?” I ask. I wish I wasn’t the one who had to do this.
Phil’s blue eyes are confused. “Medicine? For like a headache, you mean?”
“No. I mean medicine … for her problem.”
He puts his fork down. “Her problem? What are you talking about, Bella?”
“Her … er, her … condition. My Dad told me she’s a manic depressive. And my brother wanted to know if she’s taking medicine for that.”
He tilts his head back and laughs long and hard. “Ohhhh,” he says once he gets his breath. “That’s a good one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your mom isn’t a manic depressive, Bella.” And he takes a big breath. “I’m sorry, but I think that’s just something your Dad may have made up.”
“What?” I try to act like he’s not rocking my world. “My Dad wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t make things up.”
He stands up and carries his plate to the sink, where he deposits it with a clang. Then he comes and rests his hand on my shoulder.
“Bella. Your mom is not a manic depressive. She’s just … female,” he grins.
. . .
Answer to Edward’s riddle for Bella: a stamp.