NEWSFLASH: MY DAD’S APPLYING to work at Finish Line. Not the fancy tri-level mall location in the next town over, but at the “dead mall,” as local kids call it. Dad wants us to start calling our new city The Hub of the Universe. More classy, he says. Yeah. I don’t think so.
The store doesn’t even have a prime location, just a back-end corridor, smushed between a boarded-up Forever 21 (ironic, right?) and a guy selling phones and pay-as-you-go plans from a cart with spinning rims. Prairie Madness is written on the bling banner that practically shouts “cash grab.”
My eyes keep darting in that direction, so the marketing tactic must be working. Not to mention the popcorn the guy’s giving out for free. FL smells like a movie theater.
“Part-time is great,” Dad says, handing his application to a pimply-faced sales kid. I get the khakis and Polo shirt, but Dad could’ve at least pocketed his ratty baseball cap.
Prairie must be the latest wireless sensation. I wouldn’t know. “Tech-dunce” is an actual word in my family, because smartphones are on Dad’s “Hot 100” ban list. Renée doesn’t mind having the label. She’s smart enough without a phone. Heck, maybe even smarter. But my sister Kaitlin was clearly smitten when we walked by ten minutes ago. She knew better than to ask. Again. Being a senior this year doesn’t earn her any extra points. Kaitlin “retail therapy” Kraft is wandering the dead mall buying a new outfit while Renée and I are stuck waiting for Dad to peddle another application.
“Are you getting this, Emily?” Renée asks. I’m supposed to be playing “camera guy.”
“How is that relevant to the latest court ruling?” She offers an imaginary microphone to a mannequin outfitted with a jog bra and glam lashes, one of its hands dangling by a thin wire, index finger pointing to the floor. Journalist-in-training has been Renée’s middle name lately, and for good reason.
“No way!” the sales kid says. “You worked for the Department of Defense? So, like, you could dish details about your job, but then you’d have to kill me?” He snort-laughs.
Cringe. I can hear him clearly even though Uptown Funk is playing at full volume. The store is so cheery bright it borders on violent. Even the shadows have nowhere to hide.
“Are evenings okay?” Dad asks.
“Day shift only,” the kid says.
“I’ll have to talk to our manager.” He walks away carrying Dad’s application, his lower arm in a cast. I duck behind a sales rack, worried he goes to my school, and our family drama will be Monday’s Headline News.
Dad eyeballs me and raises a wait-a-minute finger. Pit sweat is not his best look. Who can blame him for being nervous? He’s a Yale grad applying for a job that probably pays eight bucks an hour. It’s not exactly a new low, because our family has seen lots of those, but this is seriously hard to witness.
“This job’s only temporary, Emily,” Dad said during our drive to the dead mall. Temporary is our family’s neon sign. I can hear the faint buzz every time another change looms on our horizon.
“Just something to supplement my painting jobs until I can build a customer base.”
“You should try a website, Dad,” Kaitlin said. “Join the twenty-first century.”
Her sarcasm was just for show. Like I said, she knows better. And whether or not a man was actually found dead in his car in the mall parking lot is up for grabs. I don’t yet have a sense of real versus fiction. True or not, it ticks the right boxes—new family in Beantown, missing one person, hiding a huge ass secret.
Renée’s back is turned, so I search the shoe wall, find the running sneakers I want—Saucony Kinvara, white and gold upper, red soles. I’m practically drooling while the flat screen plays a Strangest Moments Olympic track and field event video. Glancing at my father, now talking to a pretty blond woman half his age who must be the manager, I can only agree.
The video narrator says, “For a sprinter, a good start can be the difference between achieving everlasting glory and being forgotten forever.”
Standing on carpet designed as a track, ogling my dream sneakers, listening to Olympic cheers, I almost forget who I am.
“...a sprinter’s training is geared towards getting out of the blocks as quickly as possible.”
I consider trying on the sneakers, but then wonder if I’ll be able to take them off instead of dashing out the door, setting off alarms, maybe grabbing a phone and a bag of popcorn, and six-minute-mile-it all the way home. That’s three hundred and fifty-two point eight miles. Not that I’m counting or anything. Option two: size five sneakers tucked in my shoulder bag.
I’ve wanted a pair of Kinvaras since a classmate wore them to Kenton Regional’s Spring Fling dance, my old school in upstate New York. That was months ago, but I just have to own a pair. Running is my thing. But am I willing to steal them?
With a family like mine—three states, six towns, and four schools since I started kindergarten—running is pretty much assured, and the one thing I can say about myself that makes a morbid kind of sense. At the end of eighth grade, I wrote down my high school goals, like an actual timeline loaded with smiley face stickers—4.0 GPA, coach sponsorship, consistently improving T & F stats in line with a SUNY scholarship. Track and field was my one-way ticket out. But that was before Mom screwed up my life plan.
I examine the running shoe, turn it over, trace my fingers along the knobby red sole. “Try me!” the neon green tag says. “Eight ounces, our lightest most comfortable shoe yet.” Of course I’ll never know because the next tag I look at is the price. One twenty. That’s not even likely to show up under the Christmas tree this year. Dad quit his five-star job at the DOD to pursue a career in paint brushes and buckets and drop cloths. Yay.
Collective sighs erupt from the Olympic stadium as the video narrator says, “Christie blows it. He’s out. Three false starts, and his dream of being an Olympic gold medalist are over.” Christie falls to his knees. Christie’s face is in his hands. Just like that. Poor guy. Pity sale: check
I’m about to slide the shoes into my backpack when my sister Kaitlin walks up carrying a Gap bag, last weeks’ birthday money blown already, no doubt. Renée says retail therapy is Kaitlin’s coping mechanism and its effectiveness will wear off once she realizes feelings can’t be masked with excessive consumerism.
“Those are cool,” Kaitlin says. I can’t tell if she knows I was about to Strategically Take Equipment to Another Location.
I try and put the sneakers back but they ricochet to the floor, sending three more pair cascading down with it.
“Nice, clodster!” Kaitlin eyeballs Dad. The manager is shaking her head. I know what the frown means. Another no. Third one today.
“Care to comment?” Renée shoves the mannequin’s pointing index finger under my chin. Her objective journalist persona is lacking, because she looks like she’s about to cry. Or call me out on my pathetic attempt at a five finger discount.
“Ugh. That’s just wrong.” I grab the “mic” and fling it over my shoulder; It lands with a thud beyond the nearest clothing rack.
“Hey!” Renée says. “Hostile witness.”
I will my heart to slow and return shoes to their boxes all mixed up, red paired with black and the blue ones facing the wrong way and the packing tissue strewn about, feeling awkward and ridiculous and wishing I was ten blocks up the road with my stolen goods. Anywhere. But. Here. Three ticks on the ridiculous meter and another three for embarrassment.
Kaitlin pulls a cell phone from her pocket.
“Seriously?” I say. “Did you buy it from that dude? If Dad finds out, he’ll ground you for a month. Maybe longer.”
Kaitlin delivers her, “You’re a total dumbass” pout. She has a face like Meg Ryan and a hundred different smiles. The pout pisses me off, but secretly I envy it.
“No,” she says, all casual-innocent. “I’m borrowing it from Sarah.”
Sarah is her new bestie. Three weeks and she already has a friend willing to share a phone. I haven’t even spoken to anyone yet, Cambridge High’s track field is layered in three inches of mud, and the coach is a hack.
Three hours, three applications, and three “No’s” later, we finally make it home.
Kaitlin skips to her bedroom, saying she’s too tired for dinner, but I know she’s going to play with that phone. I’m not sure who I’m rooting for here. If she gets caught, I’ll have to hear her whine and complain while she's on lockdown. But it would be nice to Duck Duck Go something without fighting over the computer, which is nonsense because who the hell wants to share one computer with two teenage sisters.
I have no intention of dealing with the potential cell fallout, so after dinner I head to the backyard. I call it that, but it’s hardly what you might consider cozy. Our house is not a house, but an apartment (more like compartment) in one of those too-big-for-its-own-good complexes where the tennis courts host tennis balls but not rackets, because it’s just a stand-in for a dog park where people leave turds behind, and they stink and it’s unsanitary. The maintenance crew and staff gave up pretty early, as I imagine, because even though you can tell people what’s in their best interest, they commonly don’t pay attention.
I climb my favorite oak, settle on the highest branch I can safely reach, and scan the night sky. Funny, because even though it looks like the same sky, it isn’t. Hardly.
Too many false starts.
Mom’s usual med vacation didn’t end in a party celebrating her return; it stretched into three months at the hospital. Her room is now empty, our “Get Well Soon” flowers wilting in some landfill barge by now, chugging its way up the Hudson. She’s probably wearing red shoes and a white and gold jumper stamped: Albion Women’s Correctional Facility, New York. Or dead. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have a sense of real versus fiction. Not yet.
If I blink just right, stretch out on the solid limb beneath me, I can imagine it differently. Maybe without all the secrets. Or a different outcome.
Three months ago, on a night like this, the stars were out “blazing like nobody’s business,” as my mother called it. Which was her way of saying not just a few winking in the moonless sky, but a whole tapestry so close I could’ve reached out and pulled in each one, worn them on my fingers like diamonds. After a week of near-constant clouds and rain, spending time with my mother wasn't high on my to-do list.
“What are you wishing for?” she asked.
Cricket song filled the space between us, and one lonely owl, hooting in the distance. Elm and oak were silhouetted against the sky, spring buds clamped shut, waiting for warmer weather.
“Oh, come on, Em,” she said. “You don't really believe in that nonsense about ruining your wish because you couldn't keep it secret, do you?” She interlaced her fingers with mine. Her hand was rough and calloused.
“No.” I tried to sound offended.
“Like there's some tattletale fairy with an iPad and a long list of blabber mouths.” Mom laughed like a choking frog. She’d been smoking more since her release from the hospital. The scent clung to her skin like an extra set of clothing—not vile, but haughty, like she did it on purpose to keep people away.
She squeezed my hand. “You can tell me.”
I believed in keeping wishes close to my heart, not because of some bogus name-collecting fairy, but because it was the first time in a long while I actually had a wish. But saying it out loud would’ve hurt her too much, and I couldn’t break her heart like that, like she’d been breaking mine my whole life.
Instead, I said, “Two scoops, not one.”
She released my hand, and I followed her in from the patio where we’d been observing the spring sky.
“Wanna know what I wished for?” She opened the freezer and pulled out a pint of vanilla ice cream. The cold air felt good and not just because of the hot, humid kitchen. I'd gotten pretty good at hiding truths from my mother, except for the flush on my cheeks.
“Okay.” It was one of her more lucid moments, so of course I agreed.
“I wish honey bees lived longer than six weeks.”
“Because they’re amazing. And gentle.” She set the ice cream and two bowls on the kitchen table. “They have to gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey. Doesn’t give them much time to bother anyone, now does it?” She eyed me, one of those sideways glances when she was thinking hard.
“Two million? That’s not true,” I said.
“Sure it is. In fact, five hundred and fifty-six bees have to fly ninety thousand miles to make one pound of honey. That’s three times around the Earth. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.” She tried to make a heart shape with her hands, but it looked more like a square.
My mother loved gathering facts. Odd, given the way her life turned out, but it was just one of her inconsistencies, one of many. It took me about ten of my fourteen and a half years to realize my mother’s truth was different than other people’s. It’s not that hers held less than the whole truth: sometimes they held much more, only I couldn’t tell exactly which times.
“I’m changing my wish,” I said. “Make mine two scoops with honey.”
Yeah. So. That was three months ago. A lot has changed since then. And a lot has stayed the same. Exactly the same. But that was the first and last time I put honey on my ice cream.
It’s silly, really, thinking about that moment, now that I’m wishing for something completely different—less big picture, more small frame.
Maybe a part of me knew back then. Not like the way I know facts, like intellectually or something I could easily put into words. But like that stomach punch I get when thinking about my mother. Not so much like having the floor pulled out from under me, but the way she yanks it sideways, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, because she can. The finish line keeps moving just when I think I have a solid feel for it, or at least a tenuous hold. But that’s what life is like in our family. I wonder if Dad feels it too. After all those no’s today, he has to. Right?