“That’s not true,” she said slowly, but it was just now hitting her, I could see it. “Halley, you don’t always know what’s at stake, and I do.”
“I will never learn,” I said to her slowly, “until you let me.”
And so we stood there in the kitchen, my mother and I, facing off over everything that had built up since June, when I was willing to hand myself over free and clear. Now, I needed her to return it all to me, with the faith that I could make my own way.
“Okay,” she said finally. She ran a hand through her hair. “All right.”
“Thank you,” I said as she cut the light off, and we started upstairs together, her footsteps echoing mine. It was still all settling in, this deal we’d made. It was like learning another way of something instinctive, like walking or talking. Changing something you already thought you’d mastered and figured out on your own.
As we got to the top of the stairs, to split off into our different directions, she stopped.
“So,” she said softly. “What did you tell him?”
Outside, across the street, I could see Scarlett’s kitchen light, yellow in the dark. “I told him he wasn’t what I’d thought he was,” I said. “That he let me down, and I couldn’t see him anymore. And I said good-bye.”
I knew there was probably a lot she wanted to ask or say, but she only nodded. We would have to learn this slowly, making the rules up as we went. It was undiscovered country, as wide as the Grand Canyon, as distant as Halley’s Comet.
“Good for you,” she said simply, and then she went inside her room, shutting the door quietly between us.
You can’t just plan a moment when things get back on track, just as you can’t plan the moment you lose your way in the first place. But standing there alone on the landing, I thought of Grandma Halley and how she’d held me close against her lap as we watched the sky together. I’d always thought I couldn’t remember, but suddenly in that moment, I closed my eyes and saw the comet, finally, brilliant and impossible, stretching above me across the sky.
“Oh, honey, you look so wonderful! Brian, come in here with the camera, you’ve got to see this. Stand here, Halley. No—here, so we get the window behind you. Or maybe—”
“Mom,” I said, reaching behind me again for the itchy tag that had been scratching my neck since I’d put the damn dress on, “please. Not now, okay?”
“Oh, but we’ve got to take pictures,” she said, waving me over by the potted plant in the corner of the kitchen, “some of you alone, and some when Noah comes.”
Noah. Every time I heard his name, I couldn’t believe I’d gotten myself into this. Not just the prom, not just a too-poofy dress with a tag that would drive me insane, but the prom with the dress with the tag with Noah Vaughn. I was in hell.
“Oh my goodness,” my mother said, looking over my shoulder, one hand moving up to cover her mouth. She looked like she might cry. “Look at you!”
I turned around to see Scarlett, much as I’d left her upstairs minutes ago, except maybe larger, if that was possible. She was at nine months almost exactly, her belly protruding up and outward so it was always the very first thing you noticed when she came into a room. Her dress had been made especially by Cameron’s mother, a seamstress, who was so happy Cameron was actually going to the prom that she spent hours, days, making the perfect maternity prom dress. It was black and white, with a semi-drop neck that showed off Scarlett’s impressive bosom, an empire waist, and it fell gently over her knees. She really did look good, if huge. But it was the smile on her face, wide and proud, that made it perfect.
“Ta-da!” she said, sweeping her arms over herself and back down again, as if she was a prize on a game show. “Crazy, huh?”
She just stood there, grinning at me, and I had to smile back. Since we’d decided we would go to the prom and fulfill our Seventeen daydreams, nothing had been normal. But then, nothing had been normal, or even close to normal, for a while.
Since January, something had changed. It was all subtle, hard to see with the naked eye, but it was there. The way my mother held her tongue when I knew she was dying to offer an opinion, to dominate a conversation—to be my mother. She’d take a breath, already gathering words, and then stop, let it out, and look hard at me as something passed between us, imperceptible to the rest of the world. She’d backed off just enough, focusing on other things: selling Grandma Halley’s house and visiting her often, as well as the new book she’d started writing about her experiences being a daughter again. Maybe I’d be in this one. Maybe not.
As for Macon, I hadn’t talked to him much since that night in my side yard. He seemed to be coming to school even less, and when he did I was skilled at avoiding him. But I still felt a pang whenever I saw him, the way I still felt a soreness in my wrist every morning, or a pain in my ribs when I lay a certain way at night. In March, when I heard his mother had kicked him out, I worried. And in mid-April, when I heard he was dating Elizabeth Gunderson, I cried for two days straight.
I made myself concentrate on something more important: the baby. I saw it, small and hardly recognizable, when we had the ultrasound during Month Six. It had hands and feet and eyes and a nose. The doctor knew the sex, but Scarlett didn’t want to know; she wanted it to be a surprise.
We had a baby shower at my house, inviting Cameron and his mother, the girls from the Teen Mothers Support Group, and even Ginny Tabor, who bought the baby a huge stuffed yellow duck that quacked when you squeezed it. But something was wrong with it, and it quacked whenever you picked it up, and then wouldn’t shut up until you took its head off, an option we never had with Ginny herself. Cameron’s mother sewed a beautiful layette set, and my parents gave Scarlett ten babysitting coupons, for whenever she needed a break. For my gift, I had blown up a recent picture of me and Scarlett, sitting on her front steps together. Scarlett’s belly was huge, and she had her hands folded over it, her head on my shoulder. I had it framed and Scarlett immediately hung it over the baby’s crib, where she or he would see it every day.
“The three of us,” she said, and I nodded.
And then we just waited, circling in a holding pattern, while the due date got closer and closer.
We planned. We bought a baby name book and made lists of good ones: something simple, not bringing to mind someone else, like Scarlett’s, or needing a paragraph of explanation, like mine. We both knew how far a name could take you.