I find the bills by accident, stuffed underneath a pile of underwear in the dresser my mother and I share. Instead of clean socks, my hands come away with a thick stack of envelopes marked Urgent, Last Notice, Contact Immediately.
My heart thuds. We don’t have a lot, we never have, but we’ve made do with what my mom makes as the county Bookmobile lady and from helping out at Bonita’s daycare. Come summer, we’ve got the Jellymobile, but that’s another story.
You don’t hide things in a drawer unless you’re worried.
Mom’s been on the couch since yesterday morning, cocooned in a black-and-red wool blanket, sleeping off a headache.
“Mom,” I say, loudly. “Mommy.”
No answer. I check the crooked clock on the wall. Forty minutes until zero period.
We’re what my mom likes to call “a well-oiled, good-looking, and good-smelling machine.” But I need the other half of my machine to beep and whir at me, and to do all that other stuff moms are supposed to do. If I don’t have her, I don’t have anything. It’s not like with my friend Cake, who has two parents and an uncle living with her. If my mom is sick, or down, I’m shit out of luck for help and companionship.
And rides to school.
“Mom!” I scream as loud as I can, practically ripping my throat in the process. I shove the bills back beneath the stack of underwear and head to the front room.
The scream worked. She’s sitting up, the wool blanket crumpled on the floor.
“Good morning to you, too,” she mumbles thickly.
Her short hair is matted on one side and spiky on the other. She looks around, like she recognizes nothing, like she’s an alien suddenly dropped into our strange, earthly atmosphere.
She blinks once, twice, three times, then says, “Tiger, baby, get me some coffee, will you?”
“There’s no coffee.” I use my best accusatory voice. I have to be a little mean. I mean, come on. It looks like we’re in dire straits here, plus, a couple other things, like Kai, are currently burning a hole in my brain. I need Mom-things to be happening.
“There’s nothing,” I say. “Well, peanut butter. You can have a big fat hot cup of steaming peanut butter.”
My mom smiles, which kills me, because I can’t resist it, and everything I thought I might say about the stack of unpaid bills kind of flies out the window. Things will be fixed now. Things will be okay, like always.
We can beep and whir again.
Mom gets up and walks to the red coffeemaker. Coffee is my mother’s drug. That and cigarettes, no matter how much Bonita and Cake and I tell her they’re disgusting and deadly. When I was little, I used to wake up at the crack of dawn, ready to play with her, just her, before she’d drag me to the daycare, and I always had to wait until she had her first cup of coffee and her first cigarette. It was agony waiting for that stupid machine to glug out a cup while my hands itched with Legos or pick-up sticks.
She heaves a great sigh. “Shit,” she says. “Baby! I better get my ass in gear, huh?” She’s standing at the sink, trying to turn on the faucet, but nothing is coming out. “The water’s still crappy? I was hoping that was just a bad dream.” She nods to the faucet.
“Pacheco isn’t returning my calls,” I say. Mr. Pacheco is our landlord and not a very nice one.
She murmurs, “I guess I’ll have to deal with that today, too.”
I’m silent. Is she talking about the bills? Maybe I should--
Mom holds out her arms. “Come here, baby. Here. Come to me.”
I run so fast I almost slip on the threadbare wool rug on the floor and I go flying against her, my face landing just under her collarbone. Her lips graze the top of my head.
Mom trembles. Her shirt’s damp, like she’s been sweating. She must need a cigarette. “I’m sorry,” she whispers into my hair. “I don’t know what happened. What a headache. Bonita leaving, the daycare closing. I just . . . it was a lot all at once, and I guess I stressed. Did you even have any dinner last night?”
I had a pack of lime Jell-O, and my stomach is screaming for food, but I don’t tell her this. I just keep nuzzling her.
My mother pulls away and laughs. “Grace,” she says. Hearing my real name makes me cringe. “Gracie, that pajama top doesn’t quite fit you anymore, baby doll.”
I pull defensively at the hem of the T-shirt and cross my arms over my chest.
My mom sighs. I know what’s coming, so I prepare my I’m bored face.
“Tiger,” she says firmly. “You’re a beautiful girl. I was just teasing, which I shouldn’t have done. You should never hide you. You’re growing into something wondrous. Don’t be ashamed.”
Wondrous. She and Bonita are crazy for the affirmation talk. Cake likes to say their mission in life is to Build a Better Girl Than They Were. “You know,” she said once, “their moms probably put them on diets of cottage cheese before prom and told them to keep their legs closed around boys.”
I roll my eyes and groan. “You have to tell me those things,” I answer. “You’re my mom. It’s in your job description.”
Her face softens and I feel guilty. Once I overheard her say to Bonita, “I try to tell Tiger all the things I never got to hear, you know?”
And I always want to know, what didn’t she get to hear? Because she’s tight-lipped about her early, non-Mom, kidlike days. Her parents died when she was in college, and she doesn’t like to talk about them.
My mother rummages around in the cabinets and somehow, somewhere, finds a lone can of Coke, even though I scoured the cabinets last night for spare eats. She takes a long, grateful sip and then wipes her mouth. She fishes in her purse for a cigarette.
“Go get dressed, Tiger. I’ll drop you at school and then I’ve got a lot of things to do. Today is going to be one hell of a day, I promise. Food, Pacheco, the works. I’ll make up for being out of it, okay?”
Mom heads out in the backyard to smoke and I hit my bedroom, where I frantically try to find something suitable in my closet of mostly unsuitable clothing. My mother thinks finding clothes in boxes on the side of the road is creative and fun and interesting and environmentally conscious (“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure!”) and not actually a by-product of our thin finances, but sometimes I wish I went to school dressed like any other girl, in leggings and a tee, maybe, with cute strappy sandals to highlight pink-polished toenails. Instead, I mostly look like a creature time forgot, dressed in old clothes that look like, well, old clothes.
I drag on a skirt and a faded T-shirt and jam a ball cap on my head, because the water in the shower is starting to look suspicious, too, so a shower is out of the question. I brush my teeth like a demon in the bathroom and splash water on my face.
Then, like I always do, I allow myself a minimum of three seconds to wonder: Who the hell is that? Where did she come from?
Because the dark and straight hair is nothing like my mother’s short, light mop. My freckles look like scattered dirt next to her creamy, blemish-free face.
So much of me is from The Person Who Shall Not Be Named. So much of me is unknown.
But here I am, and for now I need to get my mother in gear, get to school, make it through zero period and the little five-day-a-week shit-show I like to call “The Horror of Lupe Hidalgo,” which, if I survive, leads to Bio, and to Kai Henderson, the very thought of whom makes my heart start to pound like a stupid, lovesick drum, and who is one of the things I need to talk to my mother about.