Early Monday morning….
Marnie clicked off and then stared at the phone in her hand.
I will be damned.
She slammed the cell down on the bed and pressed her hands into her lap, the fingers contracting into fists pressed hard into her midsection. Her body hunched over, she closed her eyes, and she rocked to concentrate on breathing her way through the flare of rage.
Not now. Not now. Let it go. Let it go. People counting on you.
Forcing back the threat of tears, she willed her spirit to switch directions, took a deep breath, straightened her back, and then stood to resume what she had been doing before that unfortunate telephone exchange.
After stuffing in a last notebook, J.J. made a quick scan of the top of the desk and the bed to make sure she had everything she needed before zipping the main compartment of her backpack. She hefted the bag from the chair to her shoulder, took one more look around the bedroom, and then headed for the hall.
Marnie’s door was still closed, so she knocked before cracking it just enough to stick her head inside. Marnie stood at her bed with her back to the door doing something with a suitcase.
“You about ready, Marn?”
It being their first communication of the day, J.J. found it odd that typically perky and chipper in the morning Marnie, who got excited about traveling anywhere, didn’t turn around to speak to her.
She opened the door all the way and went in.
“You, okay?” she asked once she was at Marnie’s side.
Marnie continued tugging the suitcase zipper to get it to meet the side she had already fastened. “I guess,” she said without looking up.
J.J. dropped her overloaded backpack on the bed and folded her arms. “What’s going on, Marn?”
The suitcase secured, Marnie picked up her phone and stuck it in her back pocket. Then she began fumbling around with the contents of the matching carry-on leaned against the pillows. “Nothing, J.”
“Don’t lie. I know when something’s bugging you. It’s only us in here. You might as well go ahead and tell me.”
Marnie snapped closed the bag and smoothed the colorful sweater she had on. “I’m telling you, it’s nothing.”
J.J. stepped in closer to her friend. “And I told you not to lie. There’s something wrong, and you need to spill it. It’s too doggoned early for pussyfooting around and playing. You have too much in front of you to be carrying around extra junk you could be getting rid of now.”
“Junk,” Marnie snorted through a humorless chuckle as plopped down on the side of the bed. “Funny you should use that word.”
Unnerved by the uncharacteristic body language she was witnessing, J.J. sat down, too.
“So, like I said, what’s up?”
The seconds seemed like several long minutes before Marnie finally admitted, “My mother.”
I should have figured.
“Wha’d she do this time?” J.J. asked aloud.
Marnie lifted her face to the ceiling and pitty-patted her thighs with the flat of her hands. “Something told me to just text her ass,” she began through clenched teeth, “but no, I wanted to do the right thing and phone her directly since I was going so far and would be traveling by plane. You’d think, with me, her only child, going all the way to D.C., she would have been calling me first thing. I mean, my father did, and he’s handicapped.”
“Whatever, he did it. So did my grandmother, before I could even get out of the bed good. But anyway, I call my mother to tell her ‘bye’. She proceeds to tell me that she isn’t sure she’s going to be able to make it home to go with me to San Francisco for Chance’s prom.”
A puzzled frown clouded J.J.’s features. “Why on earth would she saddle you with that this morning? Chance’s prom is two week’s away. She’s only in Texas. It’s not like she’s still all the way across the country in Boston like she was before they moved your father. Why-”
Then she caught herself . “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be going there.”
For the first time, Marnie whipped around to directly face J.J., her freshly cut bob fanning out with the sudden movement. “Yes, you should go there, because I’m asking the same damned questions! And like you just said, Chance’s prom is two week’s away. She can’t get the details of her life arranged to do this one thing with me? She helped me get the dress and the shoes. She told me she would be there, as good as promised she would, and now-”
Marnie swallowed, closed her eyes, and waved her hands as if wiping some unseen nuisance from the air. “Let me stop. I’m going to start crying, and then I’ll have to redo this makeup. But J., I am so mad, I could scream right now.”
When Marnie shuddered, J.J. wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s cool, Marn. You should be mad.”
But she reminded herself that she needed to get her own thoughts and reactions together. As much as she understood Marnie’s hurt and anger, as much as she sympathized with them, she realized she needed to hold her tongue on the matter. There was nothing to be gained from chiming in on Marnie’s aggravation with her mother even if she was equally as irritated with the woman. At that moment, her friend needed something else from her.
“Look Marn, you’re going to have to put this behind you for time being. You can’t go on this trip dwelling on your issues with your mother. It will be festering in your mind, and you’ll wind up acting it out, lashing at the first random someone who gets on your nerves.”
“That’s really what I’m worried about.”
“Talk to me, then.”
Marnie remained slumped against J.J.’s shoulder as she explained.
“She’s my mother, but I just don’t get her, J. She couldn’t wait until after this trip to tell me something like that? I mean, I’m glad she gave me some lead time rather than waiting and leaving me hanging without a chaperone at the last minute, but what you said about that festering thing is so true. I’m already bummed that I gotta room with Ramona ‘D’Moana’ at the hotel for the entire trip. Now I’m going into that scenario pissed off about my mother. Ramona does one thing to get on my nerves about needing to sleep early and shutting everything off like she’s the queen of something making a royal decree, and I’m going tee clean off on her.
“You and I will know that it won’t be completely about her, but everyone else will assume it is, and it’s just me being a bitch. And then, too, Ms. Calvin will be there, saying stupid sh- J., I’m going to blow this trip. The Duchess told me to roll with it, but now I am so scared that I’m going to make a mess of everything and embarrass everybody.”
“No, you’re not.”
And for emphasis, J.J. squeezed Marnie tight with that one arm. “You’re going to have to go past your mom for right now. If it comes to that, needing a chaperone for the prom, I mean, I’m sure my mother will take you to San Francisco. She’s certainly not going to let you go on your own. You know good and well Daddy isn’t. Especially not for a prom date with Chance Barnett. Then, too, Carolyn might be Chance’s mother, but she’s crazy about you. She won’t have any problem overseeing you.”
“That’s all well and good, but it shouldn’t be this way, J.”
Marnie blew out hard and long, then quietly vowed, “I’m calling up that judge once I get to D.C., and I’m going to tell him to go ahead and put my emancipation papers in order and file the motion. I told you he gave me his direct number. At the last meeting I had with him, he gave me six months to think it over. It’s been that and then some. Your mother is your mother. Chance’s mother is his mother. Looks like I need to be my own mother, and do what I need to do for me since I can’t count on Maureen to do her job or keep her word.”
With a quick roll of her shoulders, Marnie extricated herself from J.J.’s hold and stood up. She again smoothed her sweater and this time her slacks.
“Let’s go,” she ordered. “We got up early so I’d have plenty of time to make it to the bus. I don’t want to be last-minute rushing because I slowed down over this.” She turned back around to J.J. “One good thing about if I do mess up and wind up cussing Ramona or somebody out, at least I’ll get some of this aggression out of me. The chips can fall where they may after that.”
“Marn, I wish before you go you would talk to-” Marnie’s hand shot up, startling J.J. to silence.
“Save it, J. It is what it is. And don’t you say anything to anybody about what I just told you. If it comes to me having to fly back home because I snapped and went off on somebody, then I’ll do whatever telling there might be at that time. If I make it the whole trip, I’ll deal with this prom issue when I get back.”
She took away her hand, but kept up her determined stare down into J.J.’s face. “I mean it, don’t tell anybody.”
“But Marnie, if you just-”
“Don’t, I said.”
Marnie snatched the suitcase off the bed and it thumped to the floor where she yanked up the extended handle that would allow her to roll the bag out of the room. “So done with this and her,” she hissed. “Get your stuff and let’s go. I’m moving on.”
J.J. got up from the bed, grabbed her backpack, and moved on with Marnie out of the room.
Jonathan watched from the bedroom window as the little red car drove over the bridge road. When it disappeared behind the trees on the other side, he went downstairs.
The housekeeper, Marie, was alone in the kitchen but on the phone.
“Good morning”, she mouthed and then pointed to toward the back window. He poured himself some coffee and went out to the patio.
Jennifer was at the table with her laptop, cell phone, and what was left of her breakfast. She was looking through an open folder of papers. He snickered at the unusual but delightful sight of her in jeans and a tee shirt with her hair pulled up in what appeared to be a hastily arranged ponytail- her “At home with no plans to leave soon” uniform.
And still gorgeous.
He went to the opposite side to be out of her way and sat down.
“What’s funny?” she asked without looking up from her work.
“Just thinking I must be getting old,” he said after a careful sip from his steaming cup, “and I guess, having delusions. I could have sworn I just saw J.J. Hart pull off in the car with Marnie, but I come out here and she’s at the table doing her homework.”
Jennifer smiled but kept flipping through the papers.
“J.J. Hart is much thinner, can see perfectly well without reading glasses, has a lot more hair, and her fanny had better be on its way to school. It’s Jennifer Hart’s tail that’s stuck here attending to the myriad details of her daughter’s increasingly complicated social itinerary.”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to complain that it’s your lovely tush that’s stuck here with me. As for your attending to myriad details, I’ve tried for years to get you a personal secretary. You keep turning me down.”
“Jonathan, you gave me a personal secretary. She’s been in training with me for almost seventeen years now. Actually, it was she who put together and arranged this folder for me, and did quite well with it, I must say. Everything labeled, annotated, and arranged. I’m simply finalizing the things she wasn’t able to close out or confirm on her own. I’m telling you, lining up everything for an out-of-town, upper-crust prom was one thing, but these birthday parties of hers have taken on a life of their own.”
Jonathan accepted the plate Marie brought out to him, and he made a face at her back when she walked away with the salt shaker she removed from the table before he could reach for it.
“Well, J.J. doesn’t ask for a whole lot, considering.” he said as he cut into the breakfast steak, “She’s a good kid, and truth told, we’re the ones who got the elaborate birthday parties started in the first place. Besides, there’s only one more after this one. The year after that, you and I will be sitting around reminiscing, missing all the preparations and planning.”
She raised her eyes to look over her glasses to him. “You will, maybe. J.J. and I do most of the arranging and running around. All you do is book security and cut the check.”
“Those two things can be stressful, too, particularly talking a J.J. Hart affair.”
“Speaking of little Miss Hart, I hope she and Marnie stopped in and spoke with you before they left from upstairs.”
“They did. J.J. and Marnie knew better than to let Marnie leave town without touching base with me. She didn’t look too happy, though.”
“Funny you should say that.”
Jennifer put the papers down, removed her glasses, and clasped her hands under her chin. “I thought I picked up on a little something, too, when they stopped down here before they went out to the car. J.J. seemed a bit tight-lipped, as well. I hope Marnie isn’t still worried about that rooming situation.”
“I thought you had a talk with her about that last night.”
“I did, and I came away with the impression she had made up her mind to make the best of it.”
“Kind of dubious impression isn’t it?” he asked with a mischievous grin. “Since we’re talking about Marnie. Your interpretation of making the ‘best of it’ and hers probably aren’t quite the same.”
She slowly shook her head and pressed her lips together in a not quite successful effort to suppress the smile triggered by the comical truth in what he said, not to mention her awareness of the kick he got out of Marnie’s ‘interpretations’.
“Jonathan, honestly. Your other daughter is fully aware of what I am expecting from her in terms of dealing with that situation.” But still pondering the troubling aspect of the conversation, she considered things aloud, “I wonder if something else could have come up with one of them since then.”
“They’re teenaged girls,” he said with a shrug. “There’s always some drama going on with teenaged girls.”
“You’re stereotyping, darling. That’s not like you.”
“Sorry. I take it back. I’d never want to mess up my image in those eyes I’ve always loved so much.”
Ignoring the rakish wink he sent her, she pressed on with her line of thought. “But then, maybe we’re both reading too much into it. It could be they were just tired. They left here much earlier than normal to get Marnie to the bus, and they’ve been running around non-stop all weekend, beginning with that episode on Friday night- even more so with all the team celebrations and things after J.J. won her singles match and the team clinched the tournament.”
“Then, too, you did make them get up early yesterday for church.”
His statement came out sounding more like an accusation, which caused the eyes on the other side of the table to narrow.
“A little holy water and some Anastasia never hurt anybody, Jonathan Charles Hart. In fact, you should have gone with us; you’re due for a dose of both things. Sister A. asked where you were.”
“She was just being sarcastic asking you that. God and Anastasia know my heart, and both of them also knew exactly where I was.”
“The ninth hole at the club is not church.”
“I was told God is everywhere.”
“Anastasia and I have accepted that there may be no hope for you as far as church on Sunday goes, but with one girl headed out on a plane for a cross country field trip and the other lined up for her first prom, I figured a little up close with Jesus would hold the two of them in good stead.”
“As long as I stick near you,” Jonathan said, pointing his fork in Jennifer’s direction, “I’m covered. And don’t talk about that prom thing. I’m still not altogether comfortable with that setup. I don’t know how I let you two talk me into this.”
“You may as well be comfortable with it, my love.” Jennifer dug through the papers, pulled out, and held up a set of plane tickets along with an elegantly embossed formal invitation to Brookfield Prep’s Senior Prom. “These right here say it’s going to happen. But back to what we were originally discussing, J.J. and Marnie are high-energy teenagers, but they were out and about all weekend; it stands to reason they should be worn out if they aren’t.”
Jonathan shrugged in surface acceptance. “I guess. That could very well be what I thought I saw. Just a little tired, and it was pretty early when they came to me this morning.”
But that wasn’t what his heart telling him.
And neither was hers.
The ride in had been a quiet one. It was Marnie’s car, but she had gone right to the passenger side after putting her bags in the trunk, claiming she needed the time between home and school to clear her head and “get my attitude in check.”
For her part, J.J. offered no argument on the matter. Considering the potential aggravation Marnie might have to face, on top of the hand she had just been dealt, that was probably the best plan of action for Marnie to follow. After all, once she got on that bus, Marnie would be on her own.
Extremely popular at school, Marnie was acquainted with the majority of kids on the trip, but the only person from their regular crew that was going was Charmaine, who would be rooming with two of her girls. Ms. Grimsley, the Guidance Counselor, was also going, which was of some additional consolation, but two people was not a lot of support for somebody like Marnie when she had “mama drama”.
And Ms. Calvin, Marnie’s least favorite teacher, would be on board.
They pulled into the back parking lot where the bus transporting the students, faculty, and chaperones from the school to the airport was parked. The baggage compartment underneath the vehicle was open, and the driver and a couple of other male adults were loading bags as the travelers arrived. Marnie got out, handed off her luggage, gave J.J. a quick hug, and immediately boarded the bus, leaving no time for last minute encouragement or conversation.
J.J. understood; Marnie didn’t want to hear it. Anything she tried to say at that point would only have been wasted air. Sometimes, no matter how much someone else might want to help, a girl had to work things out for herself. For quite some time, that was how it had been when it came to Marnie’s interactions, or lack thereof, with her mother. She didn’t want help with that.
To allow other arrivals to move up in the line, J.J, got back in the car and drove off.
With plenty of time before school even started, and more before she had to report to her first class, she found a parking spot in the distance where she could sit and get her own head together but still see the bus. It didn’t feel quite right to just leave before she saw Marnie completely off. So much had gone unsaid, even though Marnie made it clear she didn’t want to talk, which left J.J. anxious and agitated about her friend.
She switched off the engine and turned down the music she left playing. Then she took out her phone, shot off a quick text, and sat back to wait.
Tomorrow she would actually be actually seventeen.
Seemed like she had been sixteen forever, and, at times, that she would always be sixteen. But life, like it should, was marching on. The increased independence, driver’s license, pilot’s license, half hour added to curfew, being in charge of more of the details of one’s own life- it was all very nice; however, with it came more responsibility and more complications.
And a lot more reality.
In the morning, she and her parents would be on their way to Boston so she could accompany Teddy to his prom. He had asked and she had agreed to go with him the previous summer. Plans had been in the making ever since, but as the actual event grew nearer, she found herself increasingly uneasy thinking about it. Why that was, she couldn’t quite figure out, but that she felt that way was a problem.
Teddy’s parents were divorced. His father lived in Boston proper, while Teddy went to prep school in Gresham, a small town just outside of Boston. Teddy’s oldest sister, a daughter from his father’s first marriage, was flying in from New York where she lived and worked, to meet her and her family and to see her and Teddy off to the prom. Teddy’s mother and his other two older sisters were coming from West Virginia for the same reason. All of them would be meeting for dinner on Tuesday night.
To put it in Marnie’s terms, she was being trotted out.
And she didn’t know quite how to feel about that.
Normally, meeting new people wouldn’t bother her, but this time it felt different. Why was that? Or was that even the problem?
Chase said prom was where a lot of girls lost their virginity. It wasn’t her prom she was attending; it was Teddy’s. Would that make a difference? Would any of the adults be thinking about that? Would Teddy’s older sisters?
For herself, she didn’t see being a virgin as a sort of badge of honor to be boasted about and glorified like some other girls seemed to view it or like the church and some adults made it out to be. For her, it was simply a current state of being. But it wasn’t something she was in a hurry to be divested of either. Chase said not to do anything she, in her heart, didn’t want to do.
Alone in the car, recalling that conversation, she laughed to herself.
At the time, both of them shared a good laugh behind that one, with Chase correcting himself.
“Who am I talking to? Teddy’d get his ass kicked trying something like that without your consent, wouldn’t he, J.?”
“You already know, Chase.”
Especially if she really was against the idea at the time, which she probably would be. Teddy was cute and very nice, but it wasn’t time. However, according to the Duchess, “Every now and then, sweetie, despite our best intentions, things happen that one doesn’t plan to happen.”
She hadn’t planned on taking off in her mother’s car the other night, but it did happen.
Then too, Marnie was going to accompany Chance to his prom next week. Did Chase call up Marnie and have that same conversation with her? Or with his brother? The two of them, Marnie and Chance, were a lot more likely to do it than she and Teddy were. Chance and Marnie were raging hot for each other and had been for quite some time. Who was worried about Marnie?
Obviously, not her mother.
Move on from that, J. That potato is too hot to be handled just yet.
And why was it always the girls that people worried about and preached to about staying “pure”? Why not the boys?
And what the hell was ‘pure’ anyway? Was a girl all of a sudden ‘dirty’ once she made love for the first time? Wasn’t that what she was supposed to do at some point? And why wasn’t the boy dirty afterward rather than ‘the man’ once he did it the first time?
Another hot potato item. Mooooove on.
That she wasn’t dead, or at least sequestered in her room for the weekend, after the car incident still amazed her, despite the cause having been a worthy one. Daddy never said how it happened that he and Daria ended up coming to the tennis tournament together, but she had an idea about it. He was good for using breakfast meetings to help work out problems or to have conversations that needed to be had. It would be just like him to have done that with Daria. He liked kids, was good with them, and he did nice things for other people all the time. Usually it would be way later that anybody else found out about what he had done, if anyone ever did. When it did manage to come to light, it always happened in a roundabout way- never through him.
Daria hadn’t said either, and for some reason, as she and Marnie were taking her back home after the tournament celebration at the field was over, neither of them had asked her.
Even Marnie questioned that once they dropped Daria off.
“So like what, are we scared of a little kid or something?”
“We didn’t ask her anything about it, did we?”
“Hell, I was scared.”
“Now that you mention it, so was I.”
It was just as Daddy had said on Friday, the night everything went down; twelve year old Daria might not have much in the way of material things, but she had pride in abundance. And she was old for twelve. Life had dealt that little girl more blows than many people experienced in a lifetime, but she held her head up and kept going. It was one of those things J.J. admired about her. But it was also a little worrying for her, too.
She understood what it was like to stay silent on troublesome things, and why a person might keep such things to herself, but she had the benefit of people in her life who could recognize when the load was getting too heavy. Among those people was that one who knew how to spot her holding back, twist it out of her, and then help her work through it.
Did Daria have somebody like that? If so, who? If not….
She switched mental tracks.
Everyone had been so busy. There hadn’t been time to sit down and really talk with anyone. Daddy had been in London- not that he would have been much help with whatever it was that ailed her. Heart matters went to the Duchess, but she had been tied up with finalizing the Boston trip details, helping Marnie get ready for DC., on the phone, in meetings, and signing contracts and things for the party later that week, along with all the other things she had going on in her own life. There simply hadn’t been a right moment.
Maybe, just maybe it was time she started work-
The knock on the window startled her into the realization that she had actually dozed off.
She opened the door and got out to talk with Charmaine.
“J., how you gonna be asleep in the car like that? I could have been the killer.”
J.J. yawned and stretched, then waved to Deon still in the other car, behind the wheel waiting for his cousin.
“The killer doesn’t want to mess with me this morning, Char. I’m not in the mood. Besides, I had the windows up and the door locked. I didn’t even know I had fallen asleep until you woke me up. It is a little early for me.”
“Well you texted and told me to meet you before I got on the bus. What’s going on?”
“I did. Look, I need you to keep an eye on Marnie. She’s kind of bummed over something that happened before she left the house, so she may be kind of edgy for this leg of the trip. Let people know to give her some space, and especially put a bug in Grimsley’s ear, too, when you get a chance.”
“What happened to Marnie? Is she on the bus already?”
“She is on the bus, but I’m not at liberty to go into detail about what happened to her; she’s threatened me into silence.
Charmaine tipped her head to one side. “Threatened you?”
“Kinda surprised me, too, when she did it. Suffice it to say the issue is deep, and she might be playing it off that everything’s okay, but it’s not. If somebody taps that one wrong nerve, she may go off, and I don’t have to tell you how ugly that can be. She’s better these days about holding her tongue, but she’s been pushed to an unusual limit this morning. Don’t be obvious about doing what I asked you to do. I’m not supposed to have said anything to anybody, but there was no way I could let her be out there on her own without someone who cares about her knowing she’s not quite right.”
Leaned with her back against the car as she listened to what J.J. was saying, Charmaine pushed off of it and shot her a quick thumb up. “I got that, don’t worry. I’ll put the word out where it needs to go. Too bad you aren’t coming with us. Marnie would have you as her back for sure if you were on the trip, and that would be all she needed. But me and Danita had already discussed it and decided that if things didn’t work out with her and Ramona, Marnie could come and be the token white girl in our room.”
“Shooooot,” J.J. drawled through her laughter, “she was coming in there with you guys anyway; she had already told me she was. She said she didn’t care if you all were in there having a Black Student Union meeting; she was busting up in there with her pillow and blanket. Marnie’s on the phone all the time, so she isn’t going to be caring what anybody’s talking about if it means she can get away from Ramona- unless, of course, the talk turns to boys. In that case, she’ll be all over that conversation- and running it.”
“That’s our Marnie,” Charmaine said, laughing as she and J.J. hugged. “Gotta go. Deon has weightlifting this morning, and I need to get to the bus. Don’t you worry about Marnie. We’ll look out for her. And you behave in Boston. You’re not seventeen or a senior in high school yet. Remember the pact.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
If all else began to give, there was that to hold onto.
“And tell Teddy hello from all of us.”
J.J. waved to her friends and watched them drive away, headed for the line at the bus. Then she got back in the car and switched it on. As much coverage as she could come up with had been secured for Marnie; fate would have to handle the rest. Now it was time to take care of herself. They had skipped breakfast at home in order to make it to the bus early. The Duchess had been none too happy about that, but they promised her they would take care of eating as soon as they could. Marnie’s plan was to pick up something at the airport once the group made it to their concourse. For herself, she had but one thought.
And that was across the street.
But then a vehicle entering on the other side, over where the bus was loading, caught her attention. A money green Range Rover.
She dropped the car back into park and watched as the truck in question bypassed the line arriving for the trip, arced a turn in front of the bus, and then backed into an empty parking space. Her father got out and went directly to the open front door of bus. He got on and moments later backed off to stand by the bottom step. A couple seconds later, Marnie got off, too. He handed her a take-out cup that even from the distance J.J. could tell was from Starbucks, put his arm around her and walked her off a short distance. The way he kept his arm around her and lowered his head, it was clear he was talking to Marnie, and from the way Marnie shook her head J.J. deduced,
He has a hunch you’re holding out, you little fool; he’s here ’cause he could see you had issues when you went into the room to say goodbye. Just tell him.
But whatever transpired between them, whether she let him in on it or not, Marnie was smiling when she turned back around after getting a reassuring pat on the back and a hug. It was the first time J.J. had seen her friend smile that morning, and she found herself grinning as she watched the two of them walk to the bus and Marnie get back on with her cup. It was another second or two before she noticed one of the windows at the back of the bus had opened and a caramel-colored hand stuck out of it shooting her another thumb up. She let down the window of the car and shot one back.
With that, J.J. pulled out of her space and out of the lot. Just as Marnie hadn’t wanted to be rushed getting her day started, neither did she.
“Morning’, J. Coffee?”
“Silly question, my friend. I’m here, aren’t I?”
J.J. went straight to the counter where in greeting she briefly hooked baby fingers with the coffee house’s morning manager. “Girl power, Tina. What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” the young woman answered. “And you?”
“Nothing much here either. Had to get Marnie to the bus early for the trip, so I didn’t get breakfast at the house. I came over here for the morning java and a bite to eat. ”
“I’m surprised your mother let you two do that- get away from the house without eating, I mean.”
“To save time, Marnie’s picking up something at the airport, and I told my mother I was coming over here, and that you would hook me up. She likes you, so I name-dropped you to keep her from fussing. I just need a little something to hold me until lunch.”
Tina noticed J.J. hitch the strap of the large backpack farther up on her shoulder from where the weight of it had slid it down to bunch her letter jacket at her upper arm.
“Why don’t you get a bag with wheels, J.? You’re going to give yourself a bad back or a torn rotator from carrying all that. It’s not like you have Tommy hauling that around for you like you used to.”
“I’m good. It’s not that heavy, just awkward. I freely admit to being a bit of a nerd, but I’m not trying to make dork status by dragging around a suitcase for a book bag. Is my booth free?”
“Yes, your majesty,” Tina said with a roll of her hand from her forehead in mock salute. “Your throne awaits.”
“Good. Just roll the crash cart on back. I’ll have the vein pumped up and ready so you can hook me up with a direct coffee feed. I’m dragging a little today.”
“I guess you are. Word on the street is you had a pretty busy weekend.” Tina winked then snickered at the wary fisheye she got for her comment. “Oh yeah, girlfriend, I heard about the caper. Go on. I’ll be right there.”
J.J. headed for her preferred booth, the last one in the back, marveling to herself at how fast news traveled and to where it managed to go. She wasn’t sure what card Tina was holding, but given the details of her weekend, she was pretty sure it was that one that trumped anything else she might have done.
Still early, it was quiet in the shop. At the counter sat a few grownups stopped in for coffee and perhaps a quiet moment before work. There were a couple of underclassmen at the tables, most likely freshmen judging from the baby faces and that they were at the tables. By unofficial rule, freshmen and sophomores weren’t allowed in the booths; only juniors and seniors occupied those spots at that time of day. Hunched over their meals and open books, the young ones looked to be hustling to finish homework before their first period classes. Most upperclassmen, juniors, like herself, and the seniors enjoyed the luxury of not having a first period, so her own peers and the noise that came with them wouldn’t be showing up for another hour or so.
Which, for today, was just fine.
Settled in, waiting for a barista to arrive with the coffee and take her food order, she pulled out her math notebook to study for her upcoming exam, but quickly found herself too fragmented and unsettled to absorb even the diagrams she had made for herself. Tina’s mention of Tommy had added yet another entree to her smorgasbord of mental distraction. She closed the notebook and put it back in the bag.
Tommy, too, used to fuss about her carrying that backpack. If they were together, he would insist on swapping hers for his, and she would tease him about the difference in the weight of the two bags, more so the contents. Or lack thereof when it came to his.
Tommy went through the motions in most of his classes, and he did it fairly well, but he wasn’t in love with the academics part of school. He enjoyed indulging his passions, anything design or art related, and athletics, but for Tommy, attending core classes was something he did because it was expected of him. Something where he had no choice in the matter. Brenda Steele, his mother, didn’t play when it came to Tommy and his formal education. She didn’t play when it came to Tommy, period.
It was his insisting on that backpack swap that helped Tommy get located and back home the time the two of them were kidnapped from in front of that very same coffee shop. That swap also eventually led to Tommy being in Spain with his newfound paternal family. Everybody at home missed him.
She missed him. A lot.
It had been a while since she heard so much as a peep from Tommy. February, to be exact. For Valentine’s Day, he sent her a box of Petits Chocolats from a specialty shop in Barcelona. He also had a local florist deliver a single yellow rose with a note that said, “Thinking of you and miss you, girl.” Back in the summertime, he sent her a picture of himself attached to an email. But that was only after she emailed him about having gotten hurt at the park. She sent him a few more messages, but there was another silent gap until a couple days before Christmas when he mailed her a card, a huge, flowing silk scarf in shades of her blue, her favorite color, and a short note. In it, he let her know he was doing fine, and reminded her it was their first Christmas away from each other since they first met in the sixth grade.
Like I needed reminding.
This birthday coming up would be the first one of her parties he would miss since they met. His year in that cultural immersion program wouldn’t be up until July.
But then, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing since Teddy was going to be at the party. Chase was bad enough when it came to playing big brother; he had really been ragging her about Teddy. Then add in Daddy, and maybe Uncle Bill.
Under the right circumstances, Tommy could be overly protective at times, too. For her birthday party, she could do without the added complication of Thomas Jordan Steele.
“Here you go.”
Miranda, one of the college student waitresses, set a coffee decanter on the table along with a saucer of French vanilla flavored creamers. “Made it strong like you like it. Whatcha gonna have t’ eat?”
She ordered a raspberry and cream cheese Danish. Not the best choice in terms of nutrition, but she figured the sugar rush ramped up by the caffeine would keep her alert through second period when she took her advanced placement math class test. Lunch was right after third, so the potential debilitating crash could be averted in time for her to be functional for the rest of the day. She poured herself a cup of coffee, added the creamer, stirred, and took the first long drag.
“So, I understand you’re a car thief now.”
She opened her eyes to find Tina sliding into the other side of the booth, a wicked grin on her face. Trump, indeed.
“Shouldn’t you be at the register?”
“I’m on break.”
Tina poured herself some coffee. “I’m surprised you still have a head after that stunt you pulled last Friday. And it was your mother’s car, too?” Tina reached across to poke her in the arm. “You go, girl. You got some real nerve.”
Amused by the jab and the roundabout compliment, J.J. shook her head, “You are so crazy,” and sat forward over her cup to explain.
“It was definitely a spur of the moment thing. I’m not sure which grapevine you got the story off of, but if you heard all that, then you asked for and got the details, so you know I’m not a thief and why it is I still exist. Had it been an actual act of larceny, you know good and well by this time I wouldn’t even be the spot left on the bottom of my mother’s house shoe from where and how she got with me.”
They high-fived each other and shared a hearty chuckle.
When they sobered some, Tina sat back and looked J.J. in the eyes. “So you all ready for this prom?”
Something in the tone of what should have been an otherwise benign question caught J.J.’s ear and altered what would have been an equally benign response.
“What makes you ask?”
“Because I care.”
Not quite sure how to respond because she still wasn’t sure what lurked behind the question, J.J. played it safe. “Thank you. I’m all set, I think.”
“Not really, to be honest. But then, I’m not the excitable type. I like traveling and doing new things, so I guess I am looking forward to it. I’ve never been to a prom.”
Tina sighed. “That would be a huge big deal to somebody like me.”
“What? Going to a prom?”
“Yeah, that. But traveling out of town, all the way to Boston to go to somebody else’s prom, a prep school prom. That’s way out of my and my family’s league. You’re just sixteen, and you’re doing that. I’m nineteen, and I’ve barely been out of California- for anything. So, is your dress a designer one, J.? What about your shoes?”
J.J. tried not to squirm with her escalating discomfort, but Tina must have sensed it; she leaned forward and urged in a lowered, but earnest tone, “Hey, I know you don’t like to go there, that you don’t like to called on it, but you’re the only rich girl I can ask these kinds of things. Most of those other ones come in here all smug and aloof, thinking they’re better than everybody else. You and your girls are all pretty cool, but you’re real different than even them. Indulge me, J. Girls like me don’t get this kind of opportunity to see in.”
“See in? Girls like you? Tina, it’s all relative.”
“If it’s all relative, then be my sister for a minute and share your world with me. I’ve been wondering about it, imagining, and wanting to ask you ever since you said you were going. I’ve never been to a prom, mine or anybody else’s.”
Tina leaned in even closer. “J., I never wanted to admit to anyone else how much it bothers me that I didn’t get to go to mine, but when you’re seven months pregnant, prom is kind of put on the back burner. Now here you are going to the Grand Poobah of proms. What’s it feel like?”
J.J. smiled. She had forgotten about Tina having her life change completely in her senior year of high school when she found herself pregnant with her son. She’d gone on to graduate high school and start college; a recent large scholarship had made things a lot easier for her financially, but there really were some things and some opportunities that once lost, a girl could never get back.
“Okay,” J.J. acquiesced with a resigned sigh. “Just for you.”
Tina sat back and got comfortable, and it was J.J. who leaned forward on her crossed arms.
“Well, see, my mother drew up the basic design for my dress. She does that most of the time for extra special occasions. I leave that sort of thing to her; she’s always been into shopping, clothes, and fashion, so she has better taste in dresses and what fits a certain occasion than I do. She and a designer she works with a lot here had the dress made up for me. It’s a pain having to go for fittings and everything, but in the end, it’s usually worth it.”
“Geez, a designer. Fittings. I’d have been at the mall going from store to store, checking price tags, arguing with my mother about the cost, and getting mine off the rack. And the one you like is always the most expensive, the one your mom says she can’t afford and you don’t need ’cause it’s only one time, so you mostly end up settling. What color, J.?”
“Ooh, that’s going to be so pretty with your eyes. Strapless?”
J.J. gestured to her bosom. “With these? My daddy would have a fit. No, it has straps. Thin ones, though, so he’ll probably still trip. I’ll take a picture of me in the dress and email it to you.”
“What about your shoes?”
“They were ordered from Paris. I saw them when I was there last summer, but didn’t make up my mind to get them until going to the prom came up and I saw the design for the dress. They’re silver, strappy and high. Real sharp, but I’ll probably be carrying them in my hand and be barefoot before the night is out. I’m a Cali girl for real. I like heels, but if my feet start hurting, I don’t have the first problem with stepping out of some shoes.”
Talking about herself, sharing her life in this way, wasn’t a thing J.J. was all that comfortable doing, but when Tina smiled and rolled her eyes dreamily to the ceiling, it was the impetus that pushed her into going on with the story.
“The prom itself is being held at the Harbor Glen Yacht Club, which is right on the waterfront. There’s going to be a dinner cruise and dance on a yacht. Then we’ll go to some after-parties and stuff once the ship docks again. Breakfast is early, early the next morning before everyone finally goes home.”
Tina jerked back to reality. “Breakfast? You’ll be out all night?”
“That’s how they do it there.”
“You’re awfully young for that, J. Please be careful.”
“We’ll be with the group most of the time, I’m sure.”
“You’re talking to me, girl. I’m every day witness to your tendency to slip off from the group. You’re really cute and nice, but you’re not above taking risks. I only met Teddy that one time you brought him here to meet me last summer, but he’s very handsome, seems real charming, and he’s attracted to a risk-taking girl. There’s probably going to be some drinking, maybe even some weed or some harder junk. Stuff happens. You got too much going on and way too much potential. Sounds like a really beautiful time you’re about to have, but things can go completely off track so fast. I’m not from your background, but still I see a lot of myself in you.”
“Yes, I do. Just like you, I did real well in high school, had lots of friends, took advanced classes, had everything lined up, college, plans for the future, and then- bam, senior year, and I got knocked up. I only did it with Brandon’s father once- that first time- without protection, three times altogether, and the first time it wasn’t really something I wanted to do. He didn’t force me, like a rape or anything. I just let myself get talked into it, and there I was, future forever altered. When prom came, he went with some other girl while I was sitting at home.”
“That’s awful, Tina.”
“It was what it was, J.”
Tina reached across the table for J.J.’s hand, which J.J. allowed her to take. “Please understand, I’m not feeling sorry for myself, and I’m not preaching at you. I just want you to enjoy being a kid, a real lucky kid, for as long as you can. I’ve told you this before, I love my son, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world. I don’t regret having had him. I truly believe he came to me to teach me something about real life and about not taking things for granted. I’m passing that message on to you today. It is all relative, J., just don’t take what you have for granted. Whether you know it or not, you’re a real joy to watch grow up for a whole lot of people.”
Tina squeezed her fingers between hers before she let her hand go. “I do need to get back to the register. Thanks for the glimpse into the good life.”
And she was gone before J.J. could be embarrassed about not being able to find anything to say. Then, just as quickly, she realized Tina hadn’t wanted her to say anything, which was why she left as she did.
What had that actually been about?
She and Tina had become good friends in the short time Tina had been working at the shop. Like a precious few people in her life, something between her and Tina had clicked right from the beginning. Tina- much like Teddy- was one it felt as if she’d known a lot longer than she had.
Tina had been the one to see it happen and to call 911 when she and Tommy got kidnapped. She had also been the one to alert the police when she ran up on Tommy’s father’s obituary, which led to getting the ball rolling on Tommy making it back home. The kidnapping was what facilitated the relationship that developed between Tina and the Duchess and to Tina beginning to seriously look out for the Duchess’s daughter.
Anybody else outside the family- heck, some of them in the family, keeping tabs on her like that, she might resent. But for some reason, it was okay when Tina did it. Maybe because they were so close in age. Maybe because, like Tina said, despite their backgrounds, they did have a lot in common.
She had told Tina about going to the prom with Teddy way back in the fall of the previous year. Tina had to have been thinking about her and Teddy all that time. What made her wait until just now, the day before she left for Boston, to say it?
And how was it she was in the shop alone that morning allowing them to talk in a way that they could only have done alone? Typically, she arrived with at least Marnie in tow, if not most of the crew.
And why was she sitting there feeling all warm and fuzzy for having had Tina share her story with her rather than resenting her for trying to play big sister?
Funny how life worked out.
Not so funny how confusing and uncomfortable some of it was getting to be.
And what the heck is taking so long for one doggoned pastry to make its way back here?
Twisting around to see over the back of the booth seat, she came face to face with her mother, and she jerked in surprise, “Mom!” then quickly recovered. “I’m not skipping.”
Her mother clamped a hand to her shoulder, turned her around, and pressed her back down to the booth bench. “Relax, sweetie.”
On the opposite side, Jennifer tossed in her purse and then shed her short leather jacket. “You can come out of guilt mode. I am as familiar with your schedule as you are.”
Still stunned, J.J. asked, “Then what are you doing here?”
“Looking for you. What else?”
Jennifer signaled a passing waitress in the area and handed her the decanter from the table. “Can we get a refill here, please?”
J.J. watched her mother pull the band from her ponytail, shake, and then pull her hair down with her fingers. She took note of the unusually casual outfit complete with the leather jacket and- she peeked under the table- ankle boots to match the jacket and the purse.
“Real nice hookup, Mom, but it’s not what I’m used to seeing you wear in public.”
“I was on a mission.”
Jennifer pulled out the laminated menu stuck behind the napkin dispenser and scanned it. “I got that Azure Alert and came in what I had on.”
A little confused, J.J. tipped her head. “Azure Alert? Okay, I know an Amber Alert is for missing kids. And there’s the one for missing old people who might have dementia or something medical wrong with them. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the Azure Alert.”
The fresh coffee arrived along with another mug. J.J. waited as her mother helped herself, pouring, then adding two creamers and stirring without saying a word.
She never looked up. “Figure it out.”
J.J. thought on it.
Azure? That’s a… a shade of-
The puzzle fell into place in her mind. “That’s too funny. So I’ve got my own ‘J.J.’s Call’. But I’m not missing or in trouble in any way.”
“Maybe not missing, or in trouble in the usual sense, but I got an inkling this morning when you and Marnie stopped in before leaving that there was something going on.”
“You always know,” J.J. said with a slow smile, “but it wasn’t me this morning.”
“Yes. But I promised her I wouldn’t say anything to anyone just yet, so please, please don’t press me.”
When her mother shot her that look, the one with the single raised eyebrow, J.J. threw up her hands and hurried to her own defense. “I’m not getting smart. Honest, I’m not. She just asked me to please not say anything to anybody about it. It’s nothing she’s done. In fact it’s not anything bad about her at all. Just a disappointment that she doesn’t want to deal with right now. I simply want to honor my promise, that’s all.”
“I could tell something was wrong with one of you. Justine Hart, I thought I’d made it clear to you that I don’t like you holding out on me about things of which I should be made aware.”
“But that’s just it. Right now, it isn’t one of those things that needs your attention. If it was, I’d definitely loophole it, and find a way to tell you, but that’s not the case this time. Please, I need you to trust me on this one. She made me promise to keep it to myself for right now.”
It was more than a welcome relief for J.J. when Tina arrived to deliver in person the long-awaited order. “Here’s your spinach quiche and orange juice, J.”
She set the items down and turned to the other party at the table. “Can I get you something, Mrs. Hart?”
The older woman’s eyes went to the quiche, then to her daughter, and up to Tina’s face before she answered.
“No, thank you. I had breakfast before coming over here. I think this coffee will be enough.”
She waited until Tina was away from the table before turning back to J.J. “I see that girl is still covering for you. What did you actually order? Two glazed donuts and a double mocha latte to go with that coffee?”
J.J. cut into the quiche and popped a large piece into her mouth, rendering herself unable to answer.
Jennifer nodded. “Um-hmm, that’s all right. You don’t have to say anything at all as long as it’s the quiche that’s going inside you right now. Here.”
She slid a tiny tissue-wrapped parcel across the table. “You forgot these this morning in your hurry to get out of the house. Take them right now with that juice.”
Without protest, J.J. swallowed the iron pill and the vitamin and followed them with the juice. “So is this the real reason why you came looking for me?” she asked when she had it all down.
Her mother silently stared at her from across the table for what seemed like forever, until it became uncomfortable.
“Mom? Was it?”
“No,” Jennifer finally said. “It’s like I told you; I just had a feeling.”
She broke her hard stare and seemed to relax. “J.J., you have a lot coming up, and there won’t be much down time for you to get yourself together. I’m concerned about you. Right now, Marnie is away on her trip. Your father left the house saying he had some business to take care of, so I expect he will be gone a while. I’m aware that you have your AP math test this morning. Is there anything else you need to do at school after that?”
“Not really. I’m caught up on everything. Ahead even, on some of it.”
“Good. Before I left home, I phoned the attendance secretary in the school office. I’ve checked you out once you finish your test. I want you to come home after second period.”
J.J. could hardly believe her ears. “For real? For what?”
“Because I said so.”
“Wait. Let me get this right. I’m not going to school for the rest of the day, and you checked me out? Mom? You’re scaring me. What’s up?”
“Why does something have to be ‘up’, Justine?”
” ‘Cause this isn’t like you. You show up out of no where, dressed like… like that, and-”
“What? You don’t like how I’m dressed?”
“I love it; but it’s me, not you. You said you were in a hurry to catch up to me, but why? I’ve forgotten my meds before. You just fussed once I got home, or once you found out. You didn’t drop everything to bring them to me. Daddy might check me out of school early, but not you.”
Finished with her coffee, Jennifer slipped her jacket back on and tucked her purse under her arm. “I’ll see you at home.”
She got up and came around the booth to leave, but as she passed her, J.J. clutched onto her jacket sleeve to stop her.
“Mom, hold on. For real, is this some kind of setup because I took your car, and you haven’t had time alone with me to talk about it? Are you going to get me home and jack me up over it since nobody else will be around to witness what happens to me?”
Jennifer’s smile was one of amused exasperation as she patted J.J.’s cheek and reassured her of the sincerity of her offer.
“No my little love. As bizarre as this might sound to you, on a number of levels, I’m actually quite proud of you for your impulsiveness. That’s mostly because it was an act that proved to me what a big heart you have. J.J., there’s no subterfuge in this, no ulterior motive. I simply want you to take some time for yourself this afternoon. You need it. You deserve it.”
She bent a little to be able to look into J.J.’s eyes. “Do well on your test, sweetie.”
Once her mother was gone,J.J. sat and processed what had just happened. The phone buzzing to life in her back pocket startled her back into the moment. She pulled the cell out and checked it to see she had a text.
She clicked into the message:
“On way to airport. Char n Nita back of me. Lita n Flor front of me.
YTF is Ramona next to me w/pics and convo abt her effn cat?
Pray 4 me. Being tested.”
“You, too?” J.J. laughed to herself as she texted back.
B strong. u’ll be ok.
“And do whatever Daddy told you,” she thought as she clicked off.
She poured herself another cup of coffee and pulled back out that math notebook from her bag to make ready to do what the Duchess told her to do.
It seemed hers and Marnie’s premiums had been personally covered by the each one of the senior Harts. If they did their parts, and stayed the course set for them, they would likely both be okay.
Tina returned to the table and slid a raspberry Danish in front of her. “Here you go, girl.”
“Thanks for saving my butt. She’d have eaten me and you alive.”
“Yeah, well, it was that last part of what you just said that got you the quiche.” Tina tugged her ponytail. “Go on and study.”
They linked pinky fingers. “Girl Power.” Then they both got back on their jobs.
For the flight to D.C., Marnie found herself assigned to a window seat with Ms. Grimsley, the Guidance Counselor as her seat partner. She was certain that hadn’t happened by chance, but rather than being put out over not being with her friends for the nearly five hour flight, Marnie instead was just fine with it. Grimsley was okay as a person, and being that she was a grownup, she was probably looking forward to a span of down time between Los Angeles and the nation’s capital.
Just as she was.
As soon as she got settled in her seat, Marnie pulled out the edition of “W” magazine she’d brought with her, fastened her seatbelt, and popped on the noise reduction headphones. The weekend had been an eventful and busy one, exhausting in itself. That call from her mother, topped off by the ride from the school to the airport with Ramona and her cat drained her completely, despite Mr. H’s last minute infusion of surrogate-daddy good will.
What a guy. Coming all that way just to see about me.
“… people think highly of you” he said. “Mrs. H. and I are so proud of you for being selected… we’ll certainly miss you… we want you to make the most of this opportunity and to just have a memorable time.”
Little did he know, her own mother had taken care of the ‘memorable’ part.
Forget her. Not going to rain on my damned parade. NOT.
Mr. and Mrs. H. care. Big Granny cares. J. cares.
My own daddy cares…
… but what happens when, no if my da-
You’ve already got that covered whatever happens, so let that go for the time being, too.
She licked her thumb and forefinger, used them to flip to an article she had dog-eared, and settled in.
Ms. Grimsley, sneaking a peek to check on her uncharacteristically subdued counselee and seatmate, smiled to herself at the choice of reading material,“Confessions of a Celebrity Shrink.”
Jonathan turned into Bel Air, thinking of how quickly the morning had gotten away from him.
The previous week, his goal had been to finish up all his business dealings stateside and abroad by that Friday. He had scheduled himself out of the office for the week, with the plan for Monday being to spend it assisting Jennifer with what was left to be done before their trip to Boston. They would return on Thursday evening, and J.J.’s 80’s-themed birthday party would take place the next Saturday.
Matters of the heart, however, had dictated otherwise when it came to his plan for Monday.
An impromptu run to check on the well-being of one had led to another pit stop to see to another. Then he got that phone call that forced yet another detour, which turned into far more than he anticipated. Three hours later, he was driving back through the gates to his home, grateful as always for the familiar and comforting serenity playing out in front of him. He slowed to meander the winding, tree-lined lane leading up to the pond and the main house. It was springtime, and the estate was in full early bloom. With the windows down, his senses took full advantage of it while his mind wished well everyone with whom he had interacted that morning. Going forward, it was going to only be about Jennifer, J.J., and himself- and maybe Marnie- if it came to that.
But he didn’t think it would. Marnie was shaping up to be quite a young lady. Still feisty and outspoken, but on a much more subtle, more mature scale. She wouldn’t tell him what was bugging her when he went to her, but it was clear to him that something was.
Had to be about her mother. Marnie wasn’t one to sulk or let things get her down too long. Rather, she’d dismiss a problem as being beneath her contempt and ignore it, fuss a little and get over it, or she’d blow up, cuss the offending party out, and be done with it. These days, it seemed only her mother could generate the kind of lingering whatever it was he saw in Marnie when he got her off the bus. Sad. From the man who didn’t remember his own mother.
Maureen Tolbert, Marnie’s mother, was shaping up to be a real piece of work.
As he approached the rise to the bridge, it surprised him to see Third bounce across the road in front of him. Assuming he must be out there with Jennifer or the housekeeper, he slowed to look in the direction the dog had gone and saw it was J.J. Third was headed to with that ball in his mouth. She was sitting on the stone stairs leading down to the water, and spotting the truck, she waved to him. He waved back as he continued on to the house, wondering how it was she was home so early on a school day. For an instant, it crossed his mind that maybe J.J. had gotten sent home for some infraction, but he just as quickly dismissed that; had she gotten herself sent home from school, particularly with her mother in town, no way would she have been anywhere but shut up tight inside her bedroom.
Besides, how long had it been since she’d gotten herself into that kind of fix? She’d become too grown up for that sort of thing.
Too grown up, indeed.
All night prom….
Is she that grown up?
He pulled up in front of the house and lifted his eyes to the heavens.
Even with Anastasia’s assurances, I am going to need a lot of help with this one… out all night… with Teddy….
Inside the house, Jennifer was at her desk in the great room. She was on the phone, but acknowledged his arrival with a smile and “Just one minute” with an index finger. He went to hang up his jacket and check out the mail on the hall table where he left it after picking it up at the gate on his way in. He looked up when he heard Jennifer enter the foyer.
“Oh, I love you in that,” he crooned at the sight of her coming toward him in that snug tee shirt, those form-fitting blue jeans and now loose hair and bare feet. “I don’t get treated to this sexy ensemble very much here at home. Makes me think we’re overdue for a trip to the cabin or maybe the ranch.”
“That, we are, Mr. Hart,” she said as she entwined an arm around his. “But I’m afraid there’s not a spot on the agenda for anything like that for at least another couple of months. Anything good in the mail?”
“Nothing that can’t wait.”
He dropped the envelopes back onto the side table, clapped a hand on top of the slim one resting on his forearm, and walked them back into the great room where they sat down on the couch.
“So what’s my kid doing home at this time of day on a Monday during the school year? I saw her out by the pond with the dog. She’s not in any trouble is she?”
Jennifer snickered. “No, darling. Seeing her outside should have answered that last question for you. If your child were in trouble, you wouldn’t have known she was even at home until you got upstairs and heard her hissing at you to get your attention through where she had cracked open that bedroom door I told her not to come out of until I summoned her, if or whenever I decided to summon her.”
She raised that eyebrow. “You didn’t think I knew she used to do that, did you? Or that you would slip her cookies and things when I had her little sassy and hardheaded self serving hard time up there on the rock.”
“Some hard time. Up there in that bedroom of hers? Helluva rock, if you ask me. And even though I admit to nothing when it comes to what happened once I got upstairs when she was incarcerated, you were always better at making her mind than I have ever been able to be. I admit to being putty when it comes to that girl.” He kissed Jennifer’s forehead. “Might have helped me out some in that area if she’d have shown up with a different face and hair color. So again, what’s she doing home?”
“Actually, I had her sprung.”
“You? From school?”
“I know it’s hard to believe; she was skeptical, too. But I got to thinking about it after you and I talked about something seeming off with her or Marnie. Turns out it was Marnie, by the way, but I wasn’t able to get anything out of J.J. as to the details. By the time I got to her, Marnie had sworn her to secrecy, and that child of ours tends to strictly abide by the code of silence once she’s agreed to it.”
“Principled,” Jonathan observed. “I hope she’s not holding back something that really does need to be revealed. Levels of loyalty can be a hard thing to discern, especially when you’re young.”
“Well, she told me it wasn’t something that needed our immediate attention; that if it was, she’d have found a way to finagle the loyalty. That tells me she’s working on the ‘discerning’ part. Which brings me to why I allowed her to come home.”
“Yeah? What was that?”
“Lately, I’m getting the impression from J.J. that she doesn’t seem to know when to turn off and take a break on her own. She has a full week in front of her, and had a full week behind her. She’s always pushed hard in school, but now that she’s getting older, she’s taking on a lot more, inside and outside of school. Granted they’re starting the school day later since they’re fourth quarter Juniors, but she’s got those advanced placement classes along with her regular curriculum, as well as her extracurricular activities. She and Marnie didn’t get home a day last week before six in the evening. On a couple of those days, Marnie came in and had to go back out to pick J.J. up because either she didn’t want to stay as late as J.J. had to stay or J.J. was into something for which Marnie didn’t have a reason to stick around and wait.”
” J.J. was actually at school all that time?”
“School, study group at someone’s house, tutoring or helping out at the academy, track practice, that track meet, assisting me with the honors ceremony. I thought about it this morning, and realized that child hasn’t really stopped in months. Even when she does do something on her own, it’s running, or studying, hanging with her friends, on the phone, upstairs straightening up her rooms or doing her laundry- she refuses to let Marie do her undies. I made an executive decision to make her come home today to just take a break from everything. Even at that, I had to send her back upstairs twice to get it together. The first time, she came down in her running gear. I had to tell her ‘no running’. Then she came down in workout clothes, headed for the gym. I nixed that.”
A puzzled expression crossed Jonathan’s face. “But that’s how she relaxes.”
Jennifer wasn’t having it. “It’s also how she depletes her system, Jonathan. She ran herself sick at the track meet last week. She ran herself sick Friday night. She competed in the tennis match on Saturday and hung out all weekend after that. I didn’t say anything to you about it, but last night I got up to do my nightly check on the house and the girls, and I found J.J. asleep at her desk where she had been studying for that math test she took this morning. I made her get up and saw to her getting over in the bed. I have to think if her body is taxed to the point that she’s falling asleep over her books, and in the morning I’m seeing rings under her eyes, her body and her mind need some time off the clock.”
“But she’s always managed to pull things out successfully, no matter how much she’s got going on. She’s great at multi-tasking, just like you. Stress is a part of life, darling. I think J.J.’s proven herself to be a pretty strong girl.”
“I understand that, Jonathan, but J.J. needs to learn when to shut it all down and just ‘chill’, as she would put it. She has situations coming up in the next couple of days where she’s going to need to be at her best to make the right judgment calls. An all-night prom is not the time for her to have a tired mind.”
That last point registered with him like a hammer to the back of his head, causing him to nod in appreciation of his wife’s powers of perception and intuition when it came to their child, when it came to most things.
“The third time J.J. came down here,” Jennifer went on, “she had changed into a tee shirt, shorts, and sandals, and she had her journal under her arm. She’s so cute. She was so confused by that time. I was sitting here on the couch by then, and she looked over here to me and said, ‘Can I at least write?’ But before I could answer, Third ran in from the foyer with his ball in his mouth, as if he knew what was going on and she needed his input. She handed me the book, told me to hold it for her, and went out the door with just the dog.”
Jonathan noticed the book on the side table, next to Jennifer’s arm. “She left her personal journal with you?”
Jennifer reached out to smooth a hand over the leather-bound, second volume chronicle of their daughter’s 16th year. “It’s fine here with me. She knew it would be.”
Jonathan used the arm draped across the back of the couch to bring his wife closer. “My girl has always been smart about where and with whom to put her trust,” he said aloud. To himself he thought, “That’s something she definitely gets from her daddy.”
As soon as the passengers got the go ahead after the plane touched down, Marnie phoned her father’s room to let him know she had arrived in D.C. safely. Then she phoned the Harts. Mrs. H. answered, and in the course of the conversation asked if she had also phoned her mother. She told her she hadn’t.
And she didn’t.
Not even for you, Mrs. H. You just don’t know….
She phoned her grandmother instead.
Once the group made it to baggage claim, Ramona made a beeline for her, prattling on and on about the bit of turbulence encountered on the flight, missing her damned cat, and on and on and on. Marnie struggled hard against shouting, “SHUT UP!” at the girl. After all, the flight landed without a hitch, they were all okay, and the cat was wherever the hell it was, probably glad to be shut of her. In Marnie’s private opinion, if that was all Ramona had to worry over, she had a lot more going for her than the person she was talking to about it. But she did her best to be cordial and to appear receptive to it all.
Her bag and Ramona’s arrived at the same time on the luggage carousel, so there was no getting away from her. The only thing that kept her civil was Mr. H’s voice in her head when he came to her at the bus, telling her what she already suspected to really be true even though she didn’t quite understand why….
“… people think highly of you…”
Charmaine and her girls closed ranks around her, but Ramona remained next to her, chattering about some more nothing as they waited for everyone else in the group to retrieve their belongings. Then Ms. Calvin passed by dragging her suitcase and giving her eye.
Trying to make it look as if she was scratching her forehead and arranging her scarf, Marnie discreetly crossed herself and prayed for deliverance.
Look, I know I’m not Catholic, but I’m going to need a huge assist to get me through this. Mrs. H. always says You don’t care what branch a person is affiliated with, so….
For the trip on the shuttle bus to the hotel, Charmaine somehow managed to squeeze into the seat next to her before Ramona could. Grateful for the reprieve, Marnie was acutely aware that Charmaine and the girls could save her for the time being, but at some point, she would have to be alone with Ramona in that hotel room. What then?
She’s going to get cussed the hell out, that’s what. Then she’ll tell on me, and I’ll get sent home.
If that happens, I’m going to let Ramona have it real good. I won’t have anything to lose at that point.
And I’ll feel better after that, too. About everything.
Well, at least until I have to face the Duchess about it ….
She leaned her head against the window frame and closed her eyes to wait for the bus to fill and pull off.
Lulled by the afternoon sun’s warmth and the quiet, J.J. lie on her back in the floating canoe staring up at the sky with Third stretched out in slumber across her midsection. Her fingers combed at his fluffy curls as she took in the feathery clouds lazily gliding over azure background.
She still wasn’t completely at ease with what to make of the Duchess and the ordered shut down, but she’d since come to terms with it.
It’s all good.
And it was.
It felt real good to have all her business lined up and to have some time completely to herself. The AP test went well, and she’d cut out of school right after, not quite sure what she was walking into, but ready to face what awaited her. It was an odd, but pleasant surprise to find out it was nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Duchess only wanted her to take a break.
Tell that to my mind….
She tried not to think of Marnie, her troubles with her mother, or her having to room with Ramona, but it was hard not to. They parted with Marnie uptight and uncommonly silent. Marnie was her girl. She put up a good front, but as much as she liked to give the impression she was handling things, very few were aware that Marnie was going through a lot.
But she she was aware of it, and for once they were things with which Marnie’s best friend wasn’t in a position to help her that much.
But then, too, it wasn’t like the best friend didn’t have things on her own mind that she needed to deal with, even though they seemed rather petty compared to Marnie’s issues. After all, J.J. Hart did have a mother who cared and who acted the part at all times, as well as a hale and hardy, up-on-his-feet-and-getting-around father.
The year before, she and Marnie both had close calls with their fathers, Mr. Benson injured in a car accident and her own father struck down by a weird set of medical circumstances that originated in his childhood. Her father made a complete recovery from his setback, but Marnie’s still wasn’t out of the woods. With so much time having past since the initial injury, it was just about certain he would never get back physically to the man he once had been. Mr. Benson was now in a rehabilitation facility in Texas, near his parents and the rest of his family, where he was learning to live with his diminished mobility, but he still managed to maintain his nurturing relationship with his daughter. No matter what happened to Mr. Benson, that would be something for Marnie to hold onto.
A girl needed to know her daddy cared, a fact of life she always believed in, but was only beginning to fully understand.
My daddy is going to trip. I just know he is.
He hasn’t said much about this prom, but that’s his M.O.
And we’ll be out all night….
She almost wished Jonathan Hart wasn’t going to Boston.
Trying not to disturb the dog from his nap, she slowly arced her back to lift her bottom from the boat’s floor and pull her cell from her back pocket. She pushed speed dial, hoping the boy had his phone on him for once.
“ Hey, J. What’s up?”
Nothing. I hope I’m not bothering you. Glad to see you had your phone with you. I was just calling to see if my package got there yet. I sent it next-day air.
“Trying to do better about the phone, and you’re never a bother. I just picked your package up. It was real light. You never did say what was in it.”
Don’t worry about that. Just hold on to it, and make sure you have it in the trunk when you come to pick me up on prom night.
“We’re all going to dinner tomorrow night. You don’t want me to bring it to you then?”
No, do not bring it with you to dinner tomorrow. Just do like I said, and have it in the trunk on Wednesday night.
“It’s not a bomb or anything, is it?”
Teddy, please. If it was a bomb, and I had you picking it up, would I let you know ahead of time? You’d just be blown off the map, according to plan, and I’d go to your prom with someone else.
“And I’d come back from the dead just so I could go to my prom with you. I’d kick your boy’s butt and snatch you away from him.”
Intriguing scenario, but it won’t come to that. I keep my promises; I’m going with you.
The call ended a few minutes later because he had to get back on set. He was finishing up his senior project for school, a production he wrote and directed himself.
She clicked off, closed her eyes, and returned to float status, hoping like everything she wasn’t getting herself into something she wouldn’t be able to make herself get out of.
Later Monday afternoon….
The hotel lobby buzzed with activity. Names being called. Room keys handed out. Kids and chaperones all over, talking, checking lists, asking questions, giving or listening to directions.
Marnie checked her watch. Figuring J.J. for being in Econ class, she decided to hold off on texting her. No sense updating before she got up to the room with Ramona. There would probably be a hell of a lot more to say once that happened.
Rarely ill, it made her a bit nervous to realize all the suppressing she had been doing was working its way into a headache. Ramona had gone up to the desk where the clerk was calling names and assigning rooms. From where she sat, Marnie could see her and the eagerness on her face. In response, she used her fingertips to massage her thudding temples. She realized how tightly her jaw and her teeth were set and consciously relaxed both, immediately easing some of the tension in her head.
“I hear everybody’s on the same floor.” Danita reported to Charmaine and Carmelita who leaned on the wall next to the chair Marnie was in. Danita had just returned from the counter. Marnie and the other two girls had remained where they were to help watch the bags of the others who had gone to get room assignments. “You and me are in four-forty-seven.”
She handed Charmaine her key card and peeked around the back of the chair. “You okay, Marnie?”
Marnie, who hadn’t meant to draw that kind of attention, switched to running her hands through her hair as if fluffing it out. “I’m good. Just a little tired, maybe. J. and I got up way early this morning. I couldn’t sleep all that much on the plane. Every time I closed my eyes, I’d see Ramona, and-”
“Marnie, they only had one key for us.” Ramona walked up holding up a single key card and with a puzzled expression on her face. “I told the lady at the desk there were two of us in the room, but she said she only had one key.”
Aggravated at yet one more kink in her day, Marnie stood up. “”Well, I’m going to need my own key. This is not going to fly.”
“It’s gotta be some kind of oversight,” Charmaine offered. “Just go-”
“Marnie Benson,” the desk clerk called out.
Charmaine patted Marnie’s shoulder, “See, an oversight, like I said.”
By the time Marnie got to the counter, the woman had picked up a phone. As she took the call, she punched a keyboard and looked at something on her monitor. Marnie forced herself not to roll her eyes; she hated to be kept waiting, but she did take the liberty of mentally expressing how she felt about it.
What the hell did you call me over here for if you weren’t ready for me?
Then the Duchess whispered in her ear. “Patience, Marnie. Let her do her job, and you check that filthy little tongue of yours.”
The woman hung up and smiled at her. “I’m sorry. Miss Benson?”
“Yes, I’m Marnie Benson.”
“It was brought to our attention that you might have a problem with your rooming situation.” The clerk swiped a key card and slid it into an small paper sleeve, which she placed on the counter and slid toward Marnie. “We had a last minute availability, so we were able to make a switch for you.”
“Bet,” Marnie said as she happily swept up the card. “Who will I be rooming with instead?”
“Oh, you’ll be the only student in that room.”
“Yesssssssss! Thank you so much. You just don’t know.”
Elated and eager to share the fortunate turn of events with her friends, Marnie whipped around, and bounced off the substantial person of Ms. Calvin.
“Oh! Excuse me. I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s all right.”
But Ms. Calvin must have overheard the transaction at the counter. A tall woman, she loomed massive over Marnie as she leaned down to warn, “Don’t think I won’t be coming by that room of yours to make sure you don’t have any company in there at night.”
Marnie, realizing only after the apology who it was she’d run into, took a step back and sniffed, “Ms. Calvin, in all due respect, there’s nobody on this trip that I’d want to keep that kind of company with,” before walking off from her. She could feel the woman’s eyes on her back, but she didn’t care.
With you in the room, who could have company? Company wouldn’t fit.
And who’s coming to your room to check you out having a threesome with that party size bag of Cheese Puffs and that family package of Oreos?”
She rejoined Charmaine, Danita, Carmelita, and Ramona, waving her room key and singing, “I got my owwwwn room, I got my owwwwwn room.”
So enjoying the surprise and envious outrage of the other girls, she didn’t see Ramona take her bag and slowly walk away.
The fourth floor had been reserved for their group. A comparison of key numbers revealed Marnie would be in a room across the hall from Charmaine and Danita. Carmelita would be rooming with another girl next door to them. Pleased with that situation, Marnie turned around to ask Ramona what number was on her key, and that was when she realized Ramona was no longer with them. She glanced around the crowd and finally spotted her.
Marnie grabbed her tote bag and the handle of her suitcase. “I’ll catch you all upstairs,” she said over her shoulder as she hurried away.
In the hall where the elevators were located she got close enough to Ramona to call out, “Hey, why did you leave me?”
Ramona stopped and turned around. “Huh?”
Marnie walked up her. “I said why did you leave me? I looked around, and you had just walked off. You’re not mad about me getting my own room, are you?”
Ramona’s cheeks reddened, and she dropped her eyes. Marnie had to step in closer and strain to hear her when she answered.
“You seemed awfully happy about not rooming with me. I know J.J. had to have told you about that time she and I had to room together. It wasn’t good. I got on her nerves, but I was hoping- I mean, I know I’m not all that popular, like you and J.J. are, but-”
Feeling her heart knotting in her chest, Marnie hurried to try to make things right.
“Look Ramona. Just because I lucked up on a room of my own and was happy about it didn’t mean I was glad to not be with you. I just like having my own stuff and my own space; I’m a only child and kinda spoiled like that, and you really are probably better off for having me out of the room with you. The way it is now, you have your spot and can do your thing your way, and I have mine. That doesn’t have to stop us from hanging out together, I mean, if that’s okay with you.”
“Really? You’d be okay with that? ‘Cause I really don’t know too many people on this trip all that well. I started not to come, but my folks said I had to because the committee picked me. That I’d earned the right to be here, so I needed to take advantage of the privilege. They kinda guilted me into it.”
Marnie grinned, “You, too? That’s kinda how I wound up here myself.”
Ramona smiled as she admitted, “I was a little nervous when I found out you got put with me. You’re so popular and outgoing and so much fun all the time. I was afraid you wouldn’t like me because of who I am and because of what J.J. might have told you.”
Marnie shook her head. “J. is my girl and all, and we do an awful lot together. We’re like sisters, but just like sisters do, we make up our own minds about people.” Marnie gave Ramona’s sweater sleeve a little tug. “Come on. Let’s go see what these rooms look like and how close we are to each other.”
By the time the elevator car arrived, Charmaine, Danita, and some of the others had made it into the hall with them. On the ride up to their floor, while the others chatted, in her head, Marnie heard Mr. H. again, telling her how other people thought of her.
… and you never know who or when they do it….
Who would have thought Ramona would be nervous about me?
Good I’m such a skilled liar. Comes in handy at times….
It turned out Ramona’s room was right next door to Marnie’s.
“That worked out,” she said to Ramona before leaving her at her door. “See you in a little bit.”
“Okay. I’ve gotta call my mother. She wants my room number.” Ramona waved before she went in.
Must be nice…
Somebody up there must have known I needed to be by myself.
They say prayer changes things. I did pray…
Marnie stuck her key in the slot, pulled it out when the lock clicked, and went in. She heard someone talking, and at first thought it an echo from the hall.
But it wasn’t. The voice came from inside the room, like someone speaking on the phone.
“Just go ahead and send the fax. Okay, I’ve got to go.”
Then louder and clearer, “Is that you?”
Marnie let go of the door, dropped her bags, and turned the corner.
“Hey there, you. I’ve been here waiting all afternoon. Come give me a hug.”
Her vision clouded by the rush of tears, Marnie headed straight for those open arms, and once inside them, let go of all she had been holding onto while Aunt Pat held onto her.
…and Pat cares.