I can always fake a smile, always. Except tonight, my face just won’t cooperate.
For sure, tonight wasn’t great. Gram’s mean boyfriend, Phil, let his usual simmering stew of anger boil over. He and Gram were yelling loud enough to keep me awake. Loud enough to wake the neighbors, too, because one of them made a big deal of everything and called the police just as Phil started throwing plates as punctuation. Now, the social worker is lost trying to drive me to some stranger’s house, her car smells like feet, I have mud on my pajamas, and I cannot make my mouth bend into a smile.
The car swerves hard onto a side road, and the wheels bump as the road turns from pavement to dirt. I lean forward, pressing my chest to the seat belt, to get into the social worker’s peripheral vision. “Should we maybe go back to my gram’s house?” I say in my nicest kid-trying-to-help voice. It’s the one that works best on adults in these kinds of situations.
The social worker yawns, gulps a swig of coffee from her thermos, and smiles sleepily. “We’ll find it.” She looks back at the road. I think her name is Randi. Yes, Randi with an i. I pull my backpack onto my lap, reach inside, and wrap the matted fluff of the marabou string Mom gave me tight around my fingers.
“Ah!” Randi stops the car in front of the driveway of a ramshackle farmhouse built too close to the curb. “Here we are,” she says with forced cheer.
The headlights pick out shadows along the house’s patchy and peeling white paint. The curtains are drawn across the bay window and no light shines by the green front door.
“Who lives here, again?” I ask. I’ve never been here before.
Randi-with-an-i has to look at her folder. “Your great-aunt. Your grandmother’s sister?”
“I didn’t think Gram had a sister.”
She flips pages. “Your father’s mother. Her sister.”
That explains why I don’t know her. I unwrap my fingers, tuck the marabou away. “Okay.”
Randi squeezes my knee. “This isn’t the end of things, Reenie.”
“Right. Maureen. Sorry.” She glances at the folder. “It’s another step in the path, that’s all.”
I pull the handle and pop open the door. “Sure.”
There isn’t much ceremony in my transfer of custody. The social worker gives the alleged aunt the thick folder and some paperwork. I can guess what the folder has in it: the whole story of me and Mom. How I’ve been living with my gram all summer, ever since Mom’s sadness got so big, it pushed everything else out of her. It’s not the first time this has happened, so we all knew what to do: Gram got Mom admitted to the psychiatric ward at the hospital, and I camped on the futon in Gram’s junk room. Why’d Phil have to mess everything up? Why’d the neighbor have to be such a light sleeper?
The alleged aunt signs some papers, hands them to Randi-with-an-i, keeps others. In less than ten minutes, Randi’s back on the road, and I’m standing on the warped wood floor of the wide foyer of a potentially falling-down house with a total stranger who’s supposed to be my replacement parent.
“I’m Beatrice,” the alleged aunt says. “Beatrice Prince.” She’s tall and old. “You can call me Beatrice.” She’s got long gray hair strapped back in a braid with scraggles poking out. She’s wearing men’s flannel pants and a T-shirt so faded I can’t make out the words, only the letters R and T in a few places.
“You’re Will’s kid?” she says after a minute of me saying nothing.
“I guess.” My dad has never been around.
She gives me the up and down with her eyes. “You look like him.”
“I’ve seen pictures.”
She considers me for a moment more, then says, “Huh.” She turns and walks toward the back of the house. “Come on,” she says, beckoning from halfway down the hall. Clearly, Randi woke her from a deep sleep.
I follow her. The floorboards groan and shift beneath my sneakers. The foyer narrows to a hall alongside the stairs, then opens into a kitchen. There are jars and bowls everywhere. A breeze slithers in through the open window, carrying a stink that’s wild and musky and rank.
“What’s that smell?” I ask, pulling my T-shirt over my nose for emphasis.
“I keep birds,” she says, stopping beside the counter and taking a sip of water from a mason jar. “This is the kitchen. You can eat whatever you want. That over there is the living room.” She points to the room next to the kitchen. “I don’t have a TV.” She says this as if daring me to complain about the fact. “There’s a dining room, but I don’t use it for dining.”
“What do you use it for?”
“My birds.” She walks toward me, back to the front of the house. We stand there, facing each other in the narrow hall. I don’t feel like moving.
She raises her hand, pointing behind me. “I’ll show you your room.” When I still don’t move, she squeezes around me, then turns and heads upstairs.
I follow her up the steps to a landing. Right leads to her room at the back of the house. Left leads to my room at the front. Between them is the one bathroom in the house.
“The blue towels are yours,” she says. “I also found an extra toothbrush and hairbrush. I wasn’t sure—” She stops midsentence, scratches her scalp near the base of the braid. “I’m sorry about your mom going to the hospital. I didn’t know—”
My fingers claw the canvas of my backpack. “It’s been two months,” I say. “I’m over it.”
The alleged aunt takes a moment, then nods. “I’ll leave you to get yourself to bed.”
I must look unusually awful for the aunt to feel the need to start in with the “I’m sorry about your mom” stuff, so I poke my head into the bathroom. It’s clean enough, with a pedestal sink, a rickety-looking shelf over the john, and a claw-footed