Children raced around the basketball court. They screeched and laughed. Quinn winced. She wondered how anyone could be awake at eight in the morning.
“Okie dokie, Monkey,” she told Tara. “Have a good day. I’ll pick you up this afternoon.” They had slept at the house, but Quinn itched to return to the dorms. Her roommates were probably wondering where she was. She didn’t want to lose her dormitory privileges, and Juleyka, at least, seemed like the type to tell the resident assistant that Quinn wasn’t sleeping there. A glance at the gas gauge told her that she wasn’t commuting at all if she didn’t stop and fuel up.
Tara slid out of the car and ran into the throng of students. Quinn left the school grounds and headed to the closest gas station. It wasn’t the cheapest place, and their gas wasn’t great, either, but it would get her to campus. She pulled up to a pump. Without even looking, she opened the glove compartment. Her fingers closed on the thin plastic of her mother’s credit card. Biting down on her lip, she slid out of the car.
“This constitutes as an emergency,” she told herself. She swiped the card. The pump beeped shrilly at her. “Okay, jeez.” She went to press the regular unleaded button when she realized the screen wasn’t telling her to choose. The message flashed on the screen and then disappeared, but she read enough: Card Declined.
Sucking in a deep breath, she swiped it again. The screen gave her the same result.
“What the hell?” she demanded of the pump.
An elderly woman gassing up on the opposite side gave her a dirty look.
“Sorry,” Quinn mumbled.
“Should have paid your bill on time,” the woman said, sneering.
Quinn bit her tongue. She held the card up, as if to swipe again. Her shoulders slumped. No matter how many times she tried, it would just be a waste of time. Her mother simply hadn’t paid the bill.
“Or she went over her limit,” she said as she walked around to the driver’s side. Sometimes, late at night, Nancy sat on the couch watching home shopping channels. Every so often, packages arrived in the mail. Quinn never questioned them before. It was none of her business. But a real emergency was occurring and she couldn’t get gas. She squeezed the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white and her hands hurt. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the old woman shaking her head and climbing into her own car.
She relaxed her grip. Inhaling, she closed her eyes. She leaned back in the driver’s seat. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed slowly. It had been a while since she did any yoga. Maybe she should stop in for a class later. She had a couple punches left on her dance studio card.
Her shoulders tensed again. She wouldn’t be going anywhere unless she got more gas. She started the engine and headed home. There had to be change somewhere in the house. She only needed five or ten dollars to get to the university and then pick up Tara.
“I can’t miss any more class,” she said through gritted teeth as she turned into her street. She had emailed her algebra professor but he hadn’t responded yet.
She hopped out of the car before the engine fully shut off. The late summer sun beat down on the lawn. If things were different, she might be slick with tanning oil, laying out, trying to catch the last few rays for her tan.
Inside, the house was cool. She locked the door behind her. Standing in the living room, she tried to remember where her mother usually stashed her change. There used to be a jar on top of the refrigerator. She crossed into the kitchen and pulled a chair over.
“Jackpot,” she said, spying the jar. She pulled it down. Dust bunnies rained on her head. She sneezed. After hopping back down, she dumped the jar on the counter. It was mostly pennies, but there were some quarters. There was even a half dollar. She counted it out. When she finished, only five dollars sat on the table. It might get her to school, but it definitely wouldn’t get her all the way back to pick up Tara.
She left the change on the table and climbed the stairs. Her mother’s bedroom door stood closed. She hadn’t gone into it since her tour with Christopher, and even then, she only stayed in the doorway. She stood just inside the room. Nancy had made her bed that morning. It seemed strange, that her mother could be so normal and then so crazy.
She hung her head. That wasn’t fair, or nice. Her mother had a mental health disorder and needed help. She wasn’t crazy.
But the knife sliced through her memories. The stitches on her arm stung. She clutched her arm to her chest as though the wound was fresh.
Sighing, she turned her attention back to the hunt for change. Most people threw spare change on or in their nightstands. She checked the mismatched tables next to her mother’s consignment bed. Nothing.
She checked on top of Nancy’s dresser next. Only framed photos of her and Tara greeted her hands. Her fingers left faint trails in the dust. She would have to try to remember to give the room a quick dusting and vacuuming. If her mother came home to a dirty room, she would freak out.
Quinn paused. She wondered if her mother really would come home. She flopped down on the bed. Fifteen days seemed like such a long time, and she didn’t know how long a more permanent place would be. From what she gathered, it all depended on the judge and how unstable Nancy seemed. Her legs dangled off the edge of the mattress.
“The mattress,” she said. She jumped up. People kept money stuffed into their mattresses all the time. She lifted it away from the box spring, her arms trembling. At first, she saw nothing. Then her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She reached in with one hand and pulled the object out.
The mattress fell with a puff of dust. She coughed and slid backward, her find cradled in her lap. After blinking a few times to clear her eyes, she looked down at the leather journal.
She flipped through it, eyes scanning for loose dollar or five dollar bills. Tucked into the pages about halfway through was a twenty and some ones. It was probably her mother’s emergency cigarette money. Quinn slipped the bills into her pocket. The journal remained open on her lap.
She tried not to look, but words began jumping out at her. The handwriting was definitely Nancy’s. The words looped in wide arcs.
“I hate Stan for killing himself, and I hate myself because it was all my fault,” she had written.
Quinn blinked at the words. Before she could stop herself, she read more.
The words started off neat, the meaning behind them sharp. Further down the page, her mother’s handwriting became almost illegible, the loops more of a scrawl. The last sentence was Quinn’s best guess.
She bit down on her lip. If the judge or Nancy’s doctors at the hospital saw her journal, they would almost definitely put her away.
She rubbed at her temples. By right, she should turn the journal in immediately. Grief did funny things to people, though. Nancy blaming herself for Stan’s death wasn’t all that crazy. At least, Quinn didn’t think so. It might look bad to a judge, though.
Her fingers flipped through the pages. Nancy’s words blurred by on fast forward. Phrases lurched out at her: “not a loving wife,” “made him do it,” “should kill myself.”
Quinn stopped at the page after that last phrase. Her eyes scanned through. Tears singed her sinuses. In thick felt pen, Nancy had outlined a detailed suicide plan. She even wrote about how the girls—Quinn and Tara—would at least get her life insurance.
“I am a horrible mother,” she wrote. “I don’t even love them. How can I love them when I don’t even love myself?”
Quinn slammed the journal shut. The sound of the thick pages slapping against each other, sandwiched between leather, echoed through her mind along with her mother’s prose.
“She needs help,” she sobbed. Her cheeks itched. She pressed the pads of her fingers to them. Her hands came back wet. Using her tee shirt, she dried her face and eyes. She sucked in long, deep breaths to still her mind. If she gave the journal to Christopher, Nancy would be locked away in a facility for a long time. There would be no end to her current reign as Tara’s caretaker. She had no idea how she would be able to stay at the dorms if her mother were transferred to a more long-term facility. At least, as things stood, Nancy would be home in less than two weeks. It could all be over soon.
Maybe she didn’t have to turn the journal over. Maybe her mother was doing well. Maybe the doctors at the hospital had figured out a treatment plan. She didn’t know for sure. It would take one phone call to find out.
She swallowed hard. Maybe she didn’t need to know. There was a strong possibility that Nancy hadn’t improved at all. Knowing could only make things worse. The knowledge would force her to take action. Deep down, she wanted to keep the journal to herself. The thoughts in those pages belonged to her mother, and only her mother. Guilt festered in the pit of her stomach like acid eating at a battery. She felt like a voyeur.
On the other hand, if she called and Nancy was doing well, she could just tuck the journal back where she found it. Maybe someday, years later, she could find a way to tell her mother that Stan’s death wasn’t her fault. That task felt as impossible as getting Tara to stop listening to that stupid boy band, ESX.
The first step, though, was to find out how their mother was doing. Everything else would fall into place after.
“It is what it is,” Nancy always said. Quinn would have to let things play out the way they were supposed to.
She jumped to her feet and jogged downstairs, where she left her phone. She held it in the palm of her hand for a moment, then dialed the behavioral disorder unit’s number.
A woman with a bored voice answered.
“Hi,” Quinn said. “I’m calling to inquire about my mother.” Her heart pounded in her throat. She had never called the hospital. She hadn’t even thought about it. If Nancy found out Quinn hadn’t asked to speak with her, she would be furious. At the very least, she would be hurt.
“What’s your mother’s name?” the woman asked.
Quinn gave her the information.
“Hold on a moment.”
A second later, elevator music kicked in. Quinn wrinkled her brow.
Luckily, the woman came back on. “You’ll have to call back.” Static nearly drowned out her words.
“Why?” Quinn asked. Her hands clenched into sweaty fists. What Nancy called gerbil thoughts wheeled through her head. She struggled to put them into words. Swallowing hard, she made herself ask. “Was she released?” Her voice cracked.
“No,” the woman said. “Your mother is currently in solitary.” The phone line crackled.
“Why?” Quinn said again. The living room seemed to close in on her. She sat down on the couch.
The woman’s words were garbled. “She’s been refusing to take her meds. She assaulted a nurse today. You can try calling back tomorrow.” The connection broke.
Quinn dropped the phone into her lap and stared at it.
Her mother was not getting better.
Nancy seemed, in fact, to be getting worse.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Bringing the journal to Christopher would seal her mother’s fate, but it might also help her get better. They only needed to prove that Nancy was a danger to herself or other people. The hospital record’s from Quinn’s stitches and the police report from the incident might not be enough.
She blew out a long breath, stirring her hair from her face.
Slowly, she stood. With the journal tucked under her arm, she left the house.
She drove to the gas station first, then headed to the Department of Children and Families offices. A secretary informed her that Christopher was currently in a meeting.
“Would you mind waiting? He’ll only be another ten or fifteen minutes,” the secretary said.
As she sat outside of his office, she realized she was missing yet another full day of classes. Her mother’s illness was once again complicating her life. She swallowed back the bitterness. Nancy couldn’t help it, she reminded herself
Christopher rounded the corner. He smiled, then frowned. She tried to smile back, but instead stood shakily. She held out the journal.
“What’s this?” he asked. Then, seeing the expression on her face, he gestured to the interior of his office. “Come on in.”
They sat down. His office was small but tidy. A bonsai tree sat on the window sill. His chairs were worn but comfortable. She crossed her legs, and held the journal out to him again.
He took it. “What is it?” he asked again.
She told him. Tears drizzled down her cheeks as she repeated some of the things she read. Christopher passed her a box of tissues. She pressed one to her eyes, but continued talking. She left out the money and her desperate search so she could get gas. If he asked, she decided she would just tell him she was cleaning. DCF didn’t need to know that she was broke.
He listened without saying anything. When she finished, he nodded. “I know this was a hard decision for you to make,” he said. “Your mom will be better off in the long run, though.” He set the journal down on the oak surface of his desk. He pulled her and Tara’s folder from a filing cabinet. He slid a sheet of paper to her.
“What’s this?” she asked, staring at it. She thought she already knew. She leaned forward. The edge of the desk bit into the soft and sweaty palms of her hands.
“Your temporary legal guardianship order,” Christopher said. “I told you my friends were fast. This grants you the ability to make decisions for Tara. Don’t abuse it.” He winked at her.
She only blinked back. They sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. She watched the seconds tick by on the clock on the wall behind the social worker. Everything felt hazy, as though she were in a dream. Her mother was probably going to be locked away in a mental health facility, and she was going to become her little sister’s new mother. She pressed her hands even harder into the wood. The sensation brought her back.
Christopher gave her a gentle smile. “Do you have any questions for me?”
She swallowed hard. Her mind was as blank as a white board in the classroom of a ghost town. Suddenly she found herself thinking of the fake towns the United States government set up while performing nuclear testing. Everything was staged. Families at tables, employees at meetings. Mannequins stood posed in an infinitely soundless world while a mushroom cloud bloomed overhead. Then the dust blew everything away.
She shook herself. She needed to be careful. If she thought about depressing things, she might find herself not far behind Nancy. Then Tara would have no one.
She needed to be an adult. She needed to ask the right questions.
She didn’t know what the right questions were.
“It’s okay,” the social worker said suddenly. “I’m sure you’re overwhelmed. If you think of anything, you can call me.” He smiled.
She stood on legs that felt as bloodless as the oak of his desk. Her head nodded, but she did not remember wanting to nod.
He started to walk her out, but as they reached the hall, she stopped suddenly. The right question surfaced in her mind.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
He looked at her. The seconds stretched out. People walked through the hall behind them. An air conditioner whirred. Phones rang. The receptionist chatted with another DCF employee. A weeping woman with two small children careened through the doors.
Quinn noticed none of this. Every fiber of her attention was focused on Christopher.
He cleared his throat.
She thought of spiderwebs and dust under mattresses. She realized she hadn’t dusted her mother’s bedroom. She would have to remember to do it later. Maybe she could make her last class of the day.
Her mind raced, throwing shadows of doubt. Maybe she had asked the wrong question. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for this job. She placed a hand on the wall, steadying herself.
“Now,” Christopher said suddenly, his voice soft.
Her heart leapt into her throat. She held her breath.
He cleared his throat again. “Now we wait.”
Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.
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