By Grace Lehmann
The phone rings four times, but Mom doesn’t pick up. She knows it’s me. Probably wishes it wasn’t. I cross all the fingers on my left hand, gnawing my lip until it bleeds. Please answer. The receiver clicks.
“Hi, Calia.” Mom’s voice sounds grainy, as if she’s exhausted.
“Hey, Mom. How are you?”
She hesitates before answering. “I’m fine.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. No one ever says they’re fine when they actually mean it. But I play along. “Good.” Dead, empty silence. “Yeah, that’s good.”
“Listen, Cal,” she says. “This is a bad time. I’m sorry. I’ll call you later.”
My heart sinks. “But you won’t call, and it’s never a good time.”
She sighs. “We’ve talked about this before. It’s not good for you to be here while we’re clearing up the situation and—”
“It won’t get cleared up, Mom. Whether I’m there or not makes no difference.”
She doesn’t answer.
“Actually, no,” I add. “It would be easier if I were home. For both of us.”
Her tone becomes hard and cold. “We’re not discussing this again. I don’t want you in the middle of a nasty divorce lawsuit. You’re staying with Grandpa until it’s over.”
I grit my teeth until my jaw aches. “It’s never going to be over.” I hang up.
The back of my throat throbs, and my eyes burn. The view of the picturesque street outside the window starts to blur, so I jam my palms into my eyes until the tears fade.
The only noise in the whole house is my breathing. Grandpa left for the supermarket half an hour ago, even though he went yesterday. He’s under the illusion that I eat more than a grown man. Hasn’t he noticed how fat the ducks outside are getting? They love the Fruit Loops and cinnamon swirl bread he buys me.
“This is so stupid,” I mutter to the silent house. Why can’t she let me come home? She sees through every excuse, every reason I give her. I’m not a kid. She doesn’t have to protect me. I was the one who found out about the other woman. I should be there. We should be together, helping each other. I shouldn’t be with some crusty old man who’s never taken care of a teenage girl in his life.
The front door slams, and I close my eyes. Grandpa’s shuffling footsteps move around the kitchen as he hauls those environment-friendly, garishly green supermarket bags onto the counter.
“Cal?” he calls out. “You home?”
As if I have anywhere else to be. I pad into the kitchen, wincing at the cold tile against my bare feet.
“I bought you some more Fruit Loops.” He points to the two colorful boxes on the counter. “You go through those so fast.”
I don’t smile. Lucky ducks.
“You want to eat something now?”
When I first arrived, he didn’t fail to express his fear over my weight, but, if anything, I’ve only lost more pounds since then. “No.”
Grandpa nods, unloading more food. “You know, we have a bingo night each week. Do you want to come tonight?”
I roll my eyes. “No.” His hurt expression doesn’t make me feel guilty. “I’m going for a walk.”
Without waiting for his response, I slide my flip-flops on and exit the house, trying not to groan at the muggy southern air. I start walking without knowing where I’m headed. All I can see is my father hand in hand with some strange woman that night in New York, stopping dead when he noticed me and my friends.
Walking was such a dumb idea.
“Hey, Cal!” someone shouts behind me. I glance over my shoulder. The neighbor kid, Grayson, is jogging down the sidewalk. He slows beside me. “How’s life with the crusty old man?”
Right. He’ll never let me live that one down. “Fine.”
He raises an eyebrow. “No one ever means that.”
I exhale loudly. “Why are you talking to me?”
He laughs. “You want the honest answer or the standard one?”
I shake my head. “Honest.”
“Because I feel sorry for the lonely, angry girl with a screwed-up family.”
I whirl on him. “If I needed your pity, I would have asked for it.”
“No doubt about that.”
“I’m not lonely and my family’s not screwed up,” I seethe through clenched teeth. “And that’s not the kind of thing you just blurt out.”
He shrugs. “You asked for honesty.”
I scowl. “I’m not your friend.” I turn on my heel and march back to the house. Yes, walking was a terrible idea.
“Hey, wait!” He hurries to catch up. “I was going to invite you to my house tomorrow. I’m having friends over to watch a movie or something.”
“I’m not your friend,” I repeat.
When I reach the house, I chuck my flip-flops into the stupid little wicker basket and storm past the living room.
Grandpa switches off the TV with a smile. “Oh, Cal. You’re back. I was thinking we could make dinner together tonight.”
I stomp up the stairs without answering.
At some point after I throw myself onto my bed, I fall asleep with daylight still seeping through the windows. Faces flit through my dreams, but the most prominent one is the strange woman on Dad’s arm, who acted like I would be happy to meet her.
I bolt awake, my gaze darting to the wall of pictures on the opposite side of the room. Grandpa thought that reminding me of all the times we were a whole family would be lovely. So far I’ve blacked out Dad’s face with marker on most of them.
As I trudge down the stairs in my pajamas, I hear Grandpa speaking low in the kitchen.
“Linda, she wants to go home.”
Mom’s voice comes through the speaker. “I know, but she doesn’t understand what she’ll get.”
“But she isn’t enjoying herself, and she calls you almost every day.”
Mom sighs. “She would have a worse time here. I’d never be home. She wouldn’t be happy.”
“I’m not sure what to do with her.” Grandpa paces across the kitchen. “She’s angry at everyone. I tried to convince her to join me for bingo night, but she turned me down.”
Mom laughs a little. “Keep trying, Dad. She’ll be with you a while longer.”
Did he really call her about how difficult I am? How would she know where I would be happiest?
As I enter the kitchen, Grandpa brightens, but I don’t greet him. I rip open the cupboard, grab my box of Fruit Loops, and tromp out to the porch.
The ducks are already waiting for me. I shove my hand into the box and toss them some cereal before sitting on the porch swing. A cool breeze ruffles my hair and I smack the strands out of my face. “I’m going to be here a while longer,” I whisper to the ducks, grinding my teeth. Mom doesn’t understand that everything will be so much easier when we’re back together. She’s just stressed and sad and angry. Eventually she’ll realize I’m right.
I throw the ducks more cereal and pull my phone out of my pocket, where I left it last night.
Mom answers on the first ring. “Calia.”
“Honey, before you ask, you know the answer,” Mom says. “I’m sorry you’re not enjoying yourself. But you can’t be here now. I don’t want you to have to deal with the turmoil. I feel that this is best, and I won’t change my mind.”
“Stop acting like this is the end of the world,” she tells me. “We’ll be reunited next month. Think of it as a vacation.”
“Fine,” I snap and hang up.
I realize I’ve been hurling Fruit Loops during the whole conversation. They litter the ground before me, the ducks scrambling to devour them all. I don’t eat a single one.
The front door opens, and the porch creaks as Grandpa steps forward. “Everything okay?”
I shake my head.
He ambles over to sit next to me. “I brought you a bowl.”
I take it and set it down between us.
“I talked to your mother this morning.” He rocks the swing as I scatter more Fruit Loops.
“You just have to trust her for now, Calia.”
I simply nod.
Grandpa stands and shuffles back inside, tying and re-tying the knot on his robe, long flannel pajama pants peeking out from underneath. He leaves the bowl on the seat, even though we both know I won’t use it. For some reason, I’m glad he doesn’t look back at me.
I sway the swing with my foot, thinking about Mom. She’s never refused before. She’s always claimed she would consider it, or that she might bring me home sooner than we’d planned. Apparently those were all lies.
Grandpa’s words filter into my mind. Just trust her. What if I can’t trust her? The strange woman flashes into my mind. I’d believed we were a perfect family until her. What if I can’t trust anyone?
“Hey, neighbor-who-is-not-lonely-and-has-a-perfect-family,” someone says.
I glance up and see Grayson leaning against the porch, his arms crossed. He gives me a grin that I don’t return. I just shove my hand back into the box of Fruit Loops and throw some more to the ducks. He watches the movement with a smirk.
“So, uh, my offer still stands. Totally not out of pity though.” He raises his hands in mock surrender. “You don’t have to tell me now if you’re coming, but I thought I’d re-invite you.” He tilts his head. “If that makes sense.” He pauses as if waiting for an answer. “I think if you let loose a little, you’ll have a better time. Don’t shut people out, you know?”
This time I don’t have a rude retort. Only a nod. He looks downright shocked, but he nods too and walks back to his house.
My hand hits the bottom of the cereal box, so I uncoil my legs and slip into the house. Grandpa has the news on and is seated in front of the TV with his glasses pushed up to his eyes, squinting at a breakfast bar label.
He perks up. “Cal, can you read this and tell me if it contains peanuts?” He’s asked me this same question over and over, and I’ve never actually done it.
I approach the couch and sit next to him, peering at the packaging. “No, no peanuts.”
He sighs in relief and tears it open.
I debate about what I’m going to say for a moment, because once it’s out I can’t retract it. “I think I’ll go over to Grayson’s house tonight.”
He adjusts his glasses, waiting.
“Is that okay?”
He smiles a bit shakily. “Of course.”
A few minutes later, I’m poising my hand to knock on Grayson’s door. He yanks it open before I can.
“You’re actually here.” He grins.
I nod slowly. “Yep.”
Inside the house, two of his friends get up from the couch to introduce themselves, but my focus is on the open box of Fruit Loops on the coffee table.
Grayson smiles sheepishly. “Just in case.”