‘But it’s your one chance!’ She sighed, looking at Isby, who was on the bedroom floor between us on her little play gym, kicking her feet at the ladybug hanging overhead. ‘I just hate how all this turned out for you.’
‘I’m really okay,’ I said. She studied me, doubtful. I said, ‘I am.’
Weirdly enough, this was kind of true. Even with my morning of double rejections. Even though I’d walked my new bike home, instead of riding it, as I just was not up for another bruise to my shins, elbows, or ego. Even after I’d taken that violet dress out of my room and laid it across Heidi’s bed, and slipped on my sweats and a tank top, dressing down just as everyone else began dressing up. In some ways, maybe this was what I’d done back in May, my first time around. But it was also totally different.
I realized now why Maggie was so sure I’d be leaving with more than a bike at the end of the summer. Because it was obvious, this true difference in me now: I had these experiences, these tales, more of this life. So maybe it wasn’t the fairy tale. But those stories weren’t real anyway. Mine were.
Once Heidi was gone, I carried Isby out to the deck, holding her up so she could see the water. There were still people out on the beach, soaking up the last of the daylight, while others were already out for their evening walks, proceeding past in couples, or groups, dogs and children running out ahead or lagging behind. We watched for a while, then headed back inside, where I heard someone knocking at the door.
As I passed the kitchen table, I saw Heidi’s phone, sitting right next to the saltshaker. She’d missed two calls – whoops – before realizing and doubling back for it. When I pulled the door open, holding the phone out with my other hand, I saw it wasn’t Heidi after all. It was my mother.
‘Hi, Auden,’ she said. ‘Can I come in?’
In response, Isby let out a squawk. My mom looked at the baby, then at me. ‘Sure,’ I said, then realized I needed to step back to make room for this to actually happen. ‘Of course.’
I retreated, she advanced, and then, somehow, I was shutting the door behind me and shoving Heidi’s phone into my back pocket before following her as she walked, slowly, through the foyer and toward the kitchen. I wasn’t sure what it was about her that was so jarring, especially since she looked just the same: dark hair piled on her head, black skirt and tank top, the onyx necklace that hung right at her collarbone, emphasizing its sharpness. But still, something was different.
‘So,’ I said slowly, shifting Isby back to my other hip. ‘What are you doing here?’
My mom turned and looked at me. Under the brighter lights of the kitchen, I saw she looked tired, even kind of sad. ‘I’ve been worried about you. Ever since our last conversation. I kept telling myself I was just being silly, but then…’
She trailed off, and I realized how rare this was, her using my dad’s old trick. My mom never liked to leave any of her meaning in another person’s hands. ‘But then,’ I repeated.
‘I came anyway,’ she finished. ‘Call it a mother’s prerogative. I wonder if your dad and Heidi can spare a cup of coffee?’
‘Of course,’ I said, walking over to the cupboard to pull out a mug. I was trying to reach up to get one and manage Isby, who had suddenly decided to go all squirmy on me, when I looked over at my mom, who was watching me with a curious expression. ‘Do you think you could –’
‘Oh,’ she said. Then she sat up straighter, as if about to be graded on something, and held out her hands. ‘Certainly.’
I handed Isby over, feeling my mom’s fingers brush mine as she left my hands for hers. Before I turned back to get the coffee, it struck me how strange it was to see my mother with a baby. She looked awkward sitting there, her arms bent at the elbow, studying Isby’s face with a clinical expression, as if she was a puzzle or riddle. In turn, Isby stared back at her, googly eyed, moving her little hands in circles, around and around again. Still, when I slid the coffee in front of her a few moments later, I stood at her side, prepared to take over. But she kept her eyes on the baby, so I sat down instead.
‘She’s very cute,’ she said finally. ‘Looks a little like you did at this age.’
My mom nodded. ‘It’s the eyes. They’re just like your father’s.’
I looked at Isby, who seemed to be not at all worried about being held by a stranger, much less one who was clearly somewhat uncomfortable. As far as she knew, everyone she met had her best interest at heart.
‘I didn’t mean to worry you,’ I said to my mom now. ‘I’ve just… there’s just been a lot going on.’
‘I could tell.’ She eased Isby into a seated position, picking up her coffee with her other hand. ‘But I still got worried, when in that last call, you started asking about the divorce. You sounded so different.’
‘Different how?’ I asked.
She considered this for a minute. Then she said, ‘The word that comes to mind is younger, actually. Although for the life of me, I can’t explain why that is.’
It made sense to me, but I didn’t say so. Instead, I reached out, taking one of Isby’s fat fingers and squeezing it. She looked at me, then back at my mom.
‘The truth is, I thought I was losing you,’ she said, more to Isby than to me. ‘When you came down here, to your father and Heidi, and made all these friends. And then with the argument we had about the dorms… I suppose I’d just gotten comfortable thinking we were on the same page. And then, suddenly, we weren’t. It was very strange. Almost lonely.’
Almost, I thought. Out loud I said, ‘Just because we don’t see eye to eye on everything doesn’t mean we can’t be close.’
‘True,’ she agreed. ‘But I suppose it was just very jarring for me. To see you changing so quickly. It was like you had this whole world of traditions and language I didn’t understand, and there wasn’t a place in it for me.’
She was still looking at Isby as she said this – face to her face, her hands around the baby’s waist – as if these words were meant for her ears alone. ‘I know the feeling,’ I said.
I nodded. ‘Yeah. I do.’
Now, she turned, looking at me. ‘I could not bear,’ she said slowly, making sure each word was clear, ‘to think that a choice I made in my life had somehow ruined yours. That would be unthinkable for me.’