Just when I’m starting to think she might be dead or something, the phone rings. I lunge for it, banging my shin on the coffee table and sending Mom’s ashtray tumbling to the floor. Ashes scatter on the burnt-orange carpet.
“Mom?” I say again.
“Hello, there.” It’s a man’s voice, low and fakey-smooth. At first I’m scared it’s Drake. Then he says, “I’m calling from Rainier Collection Services. Is this Ms. J. Calhoun?”
I put on my politest voice. “Sorry, you must have the wrong number.” Then I set the receiver down with a click and remind myself for the zillionth time not to answer without checking the caller ID. Sinking onto the couch, I study the new bruise on my shin, just above the ankle bracelet Mom made me for my birthday last year. I don’t know what I’m getting myself so worked up for. Mom has had to work late plenty of times.
I close my eyes and listen. It’s almost eleven, and the only sounds are the thunk our kitchen clock makes and the swoosh of cars hydroplaning through the lake-size puddle in the street outside. I keep waiting for one of those cars to stop and Mom to come swooping into the apartment with her jasmine-and-cigarette smell and her “Hey, honey pie, you still awake?” and her big, husky laugh. But the cars just roll on by.
I’m kind of wishing the Professor would call, take my mind off Mom. A couple of weeks ago he called while Mom was at work, and we argued for like an hour about whether other people really exist or we just make them up in our heads. He thinks we create the whole world in our minds. I say that’s a load of crap, because why would we create a bunch of wars and pollution? He may be the smartest kid at Ballard High, but that doesn’t mean he’s right about everything. It’s probably too late for him to call tonight, though. He’s got school tomorrow.
The quiet in the apartment is starting to creep me out, so I fish the remote from between the couch cushions and turn on the TV. A Family Guy rerun is on the only channel we get, and I’ve seen it like fifty million times. Characters from another show float across the screen like ghosts. I turn it off.
Thunk, says the kitchen clock.
The phone rings again, and this time I remember to check the caller ID. Calhoun, M. Mom’s sister, Mindy. Miss Perfect. Like her house, for example. Perfect white couch, perfect polished wood floor, perfect matching wine glasses. She acts like just because we live in an apartment, we’re a couple of lowlifes. No way am I picking up for her.
When the phone stops ringing, I punch in the number for Mom’s work.
Her boss answers, but I can hardly hear him over the voices and loud music in the background. Wednesday is No-Cover Night at the club; the place is probably packed.
“Hi, Alex. It’s me again.”
“Hey, Stevie-girl. I already told you, your mom’s off tonight.”
“I thought she might—”
“Sorry, haven’t seen her since yesterday morning.” He clicks his tongue. “What’s she doing, leaving you all alone like that?”
I force a laugh. “Hey, I’m fifteen, remember? I can take care of myself.”
“Still, that’s awful young for—”
“Oh, here she is right now. Hi, Mom!” I call toward the front door.
“Let me talk—”
I hang up before he can finish.
Thunk, says the clock.
There is one other place Mom could be. When I grit my teeth and press the button on the caller ID a couple of times, sure enough, the name comes up: Uttley, Drake.
I’ve only ever met him once, but even seeing his name makes my throat go dry. The corn dog and fries I ate for dinner start kicking around in my stomach. Someone shouts out in the street, so I shut the window. But that makes me feel more sweaty, more closed in, so I open it again. I try to make myself pick up the phone and call Drake’s number to see if Mom’s there, but I can’t. I just can’t.
The phone rings again. Aunt Mindy. What does she keep calling for? It’s not like she and Mom are best buddies or anything. She’s only ever been over once that I know of, and that was only to drop off a check. Another time, she lied about us to Child Protective Services, tried to get them to take me away. CPS. They go after parents who tie their kids up in the basement and feed them moldy bread. Still, what if it’s important? What if it’s something about Mom? I reach for the phone, but my heart’s beating so fast I can hardly breathe. I change my mind and let it ring.
All these calls are making me jittery, so I turn on the TV again. There’s an even louder shout outside and then the sound of breaking glass. Every thunk of the kitchen clock makes me worry more about Mom.
Finally I can’t sit still another second, so I decide to clean the apartment and surprise her when she gets home. After I shove the stack of bills inside the drawer of the coffee table and arrange the cushions so they hide the purple wine stain on the couch, I find the vacuum wedged behind some boxes at the back of Mom’s bedroom closet and plug it in.
It won’t turn on. I kick it twice, the second time so hard I chip the black polish off my big toenail. That doesn’t do anything but make my toe throb. When I plug it into a different outlet, it makes a noise like a jet plane taking off, but at least it runs. I go over every inch of the apartment. It takes me forever.
But I can’t get rid of Mom’s ashes. I rub and rub and rub at them so hard with the vacuum, I’m surprised I don’t tear the carpet. I get down on my knees and try to scrape them up with my fingernails, but all that does is spread them around and make the tips of my fingers raw. When I sit up and wipe my cheek, I’m surprised to find it’s damp.
I’m just about to give up and put away the vacuum when there’s a knock at the front door. I freeze.
“Stevie?” someone calls. “It’s me, sweetie!”
The voice is so much like Mom’s that I rush to the door. Then it hits me who the voice belongs to.
I crack it open, and sure enough, there’s Aunt Mindy.
Aunt Mindy shoves her way into the apartment and throws herself at me. Her plum-colored exercise outfit—leggings with matching top—is slippery against my bare skin, and she smells like some kind of tropical fruit.
“You didn’t answer my calls,” she says. “I was getting worried.”
I wiggle out of her grasp. “I was in the shower. What are you doing here, anyway?”
She takes one look at my face and says, “Oh, sweetheart, you’ve been crying.”
I swipe at my eyes. “Allergies.”
I’d forgotten how much Aunt Mindy looks like Mom. Same curly dark hair, olive-colored skin, and sharp nose as all of us Calhouns. But even though Aunt Mindy is taller than Mom, her hair and body are tight and trim instead of spilling over like foam from a mug of beer. I can’t figure out what she’s doing here, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be good.
“Did something happen to Mom?” I ask.
She pushes past me and scans the living room. “I take it she’s not here.”
“She’s at work.”
“I called the club. They said she hasn’t been in since yesterday morning.” She shake...