I’ve been trying to talk my character Tommy, captain of the Mailboat, into doing a guest post here for a long time (like Bailey did a few months ago), and he keeps saying no. He’s been very reluctant about sharing his part in Bailey’s story. But Bailey will be quick to tell you … he is her story.
Anyway, Bailey and I finally convinced him to let us share a scene from their upcoming suspense novel, which is operating under the working title Mailboat. (We’re trying to ease Tommy toward the reality of publication day. Wish us luck.)
* * *
Ordinarily, I have no qualms about the weather guy predicting sunny and eighty-five. Today I did. My long-sleeved tee shirt was already miserable. But I didn’t have a choice.
He unlocked the Mailboat, then turned and eyed me up and down. “Hope you brought something cooler. It’s gonna be warm today.”
I shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”
“What, are you chilly?”
“Catch cold after falling in yesterday?”
I nodded again. Nice of him to provide lies for me so I wouldn’t have to make them up myself.
Tommy laughed. “When you fall in, you fall in. How’s that black eye of yours doing?”
I shrugged. “Still pretty.” I knew he still didn’t believe I’d hit my face on the Mailboat while missing my jump yesterday.
“Well, I can see that. Is it still painful?”
I shook my head. “Nah. It’s good.” By comparison. Other parts of my body hurt worse.
Tommy picked up the stack of newspapers sitting at his feet on the pier and lead the way into the Mailboat. I dropped off my backpack up front then headed for the rear. At the skinny little cupboards near the bathrooms, I grabbed the paper towel and the window cleaner.
As I reached up, Tommy came behind me and leaned over my shoulder like he wanted something on the next shelf higher. Instead, in a sudden change of direction, he grabbed my sleeve and pulled it up to my elbow. The two red welts on my arm, already turning yellow and purple and blue, stared out at the world, blinking in bewilderment like a couple of yellow and purple and blue things.
Tommy gave me a cold, hard stare that made me wish I could fit inside the six-inch wide cupboard. It was bad enough being belted by Bud last night. Making Tommy upset was, like, a kajillion times worse.
“Come here.” Tommy jerked his head toward the stacks of plastic chairs. He grabbed a couple from the pile and set them in the middle of the floor.
I stood where I was like a zombie. A zombie with a bottle of cleaner in one hand. I managed to eek out one word. “Windows?”
“It’s not even seven o’clock yet. Sit down.”
I slid into the chair opposite Tommy, clinging to the window cleaner as if it might bring me good luck.
Tommy leaned his elbows on his knees and stared at me hard. I looked to see if he had anything like a belt or a broomstick in his hands. I don’t know why I needed to check for that. I couldn’t ever picture him actually decking somebody. But I just … I had to check. I’d never really seen him angry before. And the fact that he was angry at me made me want to throw myself into the lake. And get tangled in a nylon rope all over again. And drown this time.
“This is the second time you’ve lied to me,” he said.
His hands weren’t balling into fists or anything. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t gonna hit me. But he sure as heck was gonna fire me. I told myself to be a big girl and not cry.
“I want a straight answer from you this time. Who hit you?”
My mind raced. What kind of story could I make up that he might actually believe? Between panic and a bad imagination, all I managed to do was stare at him blankly.
“Was it your foster dad?”
My throat tightened like a venus fly trap snapping shut. How did he know? Not just about Bud decking me – but that I was in foster care at all?
A tiny little voice wanted to say Yes it was my foster dad, but my big girl voice told it to shut up. You know what’ll happen if anyone finds out. You already blew it by letting Tommy see your bruises. DON’T let this go any further. Failure ISN’T an option.
I found myself shaking my head.
“Then who did it?”
Again, like the brilliant orator I was, I sat and stared.
Tommy frowned and shook his head. “Why are you protecting this person? If someone’s hurting you, you need to stand up for yourself. You need to say something. Your social worker can help you.”
I tried not to flinch, but I did. I flinched. The words “social worker” instantly conjured a number of faces I’d known over the years. They were all pretty nice, for the most part.
But I lived in a sort of fear vortex, the operative words being “social worker.” They could drop down on you at any moment, smile sweetly, and tell you to pack your stuff. “It’s moving day,” one of them told me once, and I’ve hated the phrase ever since. “Moving day” usually happens every two or three years. Maybe every six months. Sometimes the move is for the better. Sometimes for the worse. It’s a coin toss. Once, it meant moving back in with my mom. She held me tight and promised they’d never take me away again.
They came for me two months later. It was the last time I ever saw her.
“Bailey? Aren’t you going to say anything?”
I wanted to say a zillion things, and they all wanted to be said at once. I didn’t know where to start. Or if I should start at all. I wanted him to understand. To understand why I didn’t want “help.”
Because “help” would mean “moving day” again. And “moving day” could literally mean to anyplace in the county. It could mean, like, not Lake Geneva anymore.
It could mean no Mailboat anymore.
It could mean no Tommy anymore.
I didn’t care if Bud blacked both eyes, both arms, both legs, and knocked out all my teeth—if it meant I could keep Tommy. He was the first person in my life who felt … permanent. I mean, geez, he’d been showing up at this boat at seven in the morning, every morning, every summer for, like, fifty years. If that wasn’t permanent, what was?
Oh, god, I hated this question. Usually asked by nosy kids at school who would proceed to torment you about it till the day you died. But in the grand scheme of things, it was actually less painful right now to talk about my parents than to entertain the possibility of “moving day.”
“My mom’s dead.”
“And your dad?”
“Oh.” Tommy looked down.
Yeah. ’Nuff said on that topic.
“How long have you been in foster care?” he asked.
“Since I was five.”
“Five?” He looked at me incredulously. “Why aren’t you adopted?”
‘Cuz I’m pathetic, I wanted to say. “I wasn’t available until after my mom died. When I was twelve. No one wants to adopt a twelve-year-old.” I passed the bottle of window cleaner back and forth between my hands. Like it didn’t matter.
“Oh.” Tommy frowned. “So …?”
“My mom was in prison.”
“Ah.” He rubbed his thighs again. “I’m sorry, Bailey.”
I shrugged and kept playing ping-pong with the spray bottle. But actually, it was the first time anyone had offered condolences on the sheer patheticness of my life. It was kind of awesome, as if I hadn’t deserved all this crap. And that was just so weird, I didn’t know how to respond.
“Her name was Kalli.” I don’t know why I said it. The words just kinda slipped out. But now that I’d started, I kept going. “With a k. I always thought it was a really pretty name. I kinda wish she’d named me ‘Kalli,’ too.” I stopped and glanced up at Tommy. “I guess that’s dumb, though, isn’t it?” Yeah, it was dumb. When would I ever remember that opening my mouth was a universally bad idea?
Tommy shrugged. “It used to be done a lot. Naming a daughter after her mother.”
I tilted my head. “For real?”
“Oh, a long time ago, back in the olden days. You still see it now and again.”
Tommy would know. He knew tons about “the olden days” – including, like, every last thing there was to know about the history of Lake Geneva, probably right down to everybody’s name. I liked that he didn’t think it was dumb that I wanted to be named after my mother.
“Bailey’s a pretty name, too,” he said. “And she gave it to you.”
I’d really never thought of that before. But now it dawned on me … it was the only thing I had from her. I’d lost a lot of crap between all those moving days. I didn’t have a single thing left from my childhood.
Except my name. The name my mother gave to me. And Tommy thought it was pretty.
Something inside me glowed. Something that hadn’t ever glowed before.
Tommy stirred, like he was about to get up. “If you, ah … If you change your mind about how you got those bruises, you can … you can talk to your social worker. Okay?” He stood up and walked away, leaving a plastic chair staring at me blankly.
Um, that was kinda weird. But by now, I was pretty much used to people peeling off at random. I didn’t dwell on it. But talking to my social worker?
Yeah. No. That wasn’t gonna happen.
* * *
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