Chapter 1: Everything’s Fine 1 EVERYTHING’S FINE
THE CALL COMES OVER the loudspeaker twenty-three minutes into math class. Not at the end. That’s how I know it’s bad. Teachers protect class time like it’s an endangered species. So when Mrs. Pack squawks over the intercom, “Franny Bishop to the principal’s office. Immediately
,” I know it’s emergency-level terrible. I know because I’ve been here before.
Bending under the table to grab my bag is my first mistake. My defenses are down, or more like they’re pointed somewhere else, and Sloan senses it, like any predator in the wilds of middle school. She kicks my old JanSport all the way to the other side of the table, out of reach. I scoot like a crab and grab it. She laughs, but I shake it off. Because I have to. Because whatever’s waiting for me in the office has to be way worse than Sloan. Mistake number two would be letting her get to me when there is so much more badness ahead.
Mr. Jamison, my math teacher, gives me a little salute on the way out. With my table down from three to two, his probability activity isn’t going to work. I realize it before he does, which is a gold star no one but me will ever see. I get an itch of guilt because I’ve ruined the next twenty-two minutes of class for him by leaving, but I keep my feet shuffling forward and out the door because that’s all I can do. Sloan shoots me a mock salute behind Mr. Jamison’s back and a cheery fake smile just before the door shuts.
My shoes squeak too loud on the tile floor. I freeze in the middle of the hallway.
It’s been three years, our longest stretch yet. I thought we were really in the clear, in the clean camp for good. No more pills. We were supposed to be done. She promised.
I had my first walk like this in kindergarten in a different school in a different state. The secretary called me halfway through circle time. I skipped down the yellow halls like I was on my way to recess. I didn’t know to expect anything bad. I should have. Things had been off for a while, but when you’re five, there is no normal other than the one you’ve always known. How was I supposed to know most moms don’t fall asleep in their car in the driveway or space out midsentence over dinner? “Hitting rock bottom” is a stupid saying. There’s always farther to fall.
My stomach pinches, so I crouch down next to the water fountain and dig my planner out of my bag. I flip to today to trace the agenda with my fingertip. The list calms me.
TUESDAY, MARCH 4
- Leave bologna sandwich in fridge for Mom w/apple
- Lunch—Return Meet Me at Harry’s to library and print English paper
- 1:45 p.m.—English paper due
- 4:00 p.m.—Help Mimi sort change
- 4:30 p.m.–6:00 p.m.—homework until Mom gets home
I cross out bologna sandwich
with my teal-ink pen. Mom tasks always get teal. I look over the rest and gulp some air until it doesn’t hurt in my chest. Maybe this call to the office isn’t a big deal. Maybe it’s just Mom telling me she picked up another house to clean or another Uber shift and won’t be home until late. Except she usually just tells Mimi or leaves a Post-it on our door with a smiley face and a coupon for pizza. I zip the planner back into my bag and tuck my hair behind my ears—it’s too long. I make a mental note to write a real
note to remind Mom to cut it later. Then I stand and order my heart to slow down. It’ll be fine. I’m fine. We’re fine.
But in the office, Mrs. Pack’s face has the crumbly look of wet sand. “Oh, honey,” she says, and something inside me collapses.
I sit by the baseball field as far away from the school and as close to the main road as I can get so Mimi doesn’t have to waste time pulling all the way up to the entrance. It’s almost spring, but the wind doesn’t care. I shiver in my purple coat.
Mimi drives up to the curb in her old blue pickup truck fifteen minutes later. Fourteen minutes and fifty-five seconds of that I filled with a mental slideshow of worst-case scenarios. Mrs. Pack didn’t have much information for me. Only that Mom was in the hospital and Mimi was on her way. Mrs. Pack tucked a Werther’s caramel into my pocket and waved like she’d never see me again. For all I know, she won’t.
Before Mimi can come to a full stop, I swing open the door. She says “Heyya, girlie” as I jump in and we roll onward. Her face is grim, but her hands aren’t shaking on the wheel. I focus on that. Her knuckles are knobby with arthritis, but the big bony hills of them look steady.
We make a left, away from the school and toward the small center of downtown Cedarville. I’ve been here for a while now, and it’s still strange to see the dark windows of the antiques store and the old hardware store butting up against Starbucks and Whole Foods. Mimi hates it. She never comes this way if she can help it. Whenever I ride with her to the bank, she’ll point out a new chain store and mutter “gentrification” like it’s a dirty word. I thought gentrifying meant making something old better again, but Mimi sees it as an invasion of her territory. I don’t know what she expects. Cedarville might be small, but it’s one exit from a truck stop and two from the airport. The world was going to find it eventually.
“What’d that Pack lady tell you?” Mimi asks without taking her eyes off the road.
“Not enough. Car accident. Mom’s in the hospital.” I shove my hands in my pockets. It’s not like I needed all the details, but she didn’t even say the most important thing: Mom’s going to be okay.
Mimi nods. Her short hair, more salt than pepper now, is standing up all over her head. She seems calm, but her hair tells a different story.
“Some idiot turned left on a red. Your mama was on her way to the Ellsworth house for an early start.”
“It wasn’t her fault?” I ask.
Mimi shoots me a sideways look. “No, love. And the doc said she was wearing her seat belt. Good thing.”
Shame smacks me right in the face. I assumed it was Mom’s fault. She’s always asking me to have a little faith in her. I twist the Werther’s candy in my pocket like a worry stone until the wrapper comes off and it sticks to my fingers.
As we pull into visitor parking, I get a good look at the hospital and my heart sinks. It’s red brick and only four or five stories. Anything less than ten floors and you lose all credibility. They might as well have taken her to the vet.
Right before we walk out from under the big gray sky and into the lobby, I shoot a prayer like an arrow. If she’s all right,
I say to the higher power Mom is always talking about, I’ll never assume anything’s her fault ever again.