[Loopholes, a novel I am (perhaps inadvisably) posting chapter-by-chapter on this here blog. New chapters—daily? I think?]
So my mom freaked out and sent us to Florida to stay with my grandmother.
I was NOT okay with this. Neither were Pinky or Jacob exactly, but they’re littler, and they didn’t completely understand.
Me? I understood.
I tried to talk about it with Phoebe. The night before we left Massachusetts, Phoebe rode her bike to my house and walked it into the kitchen where it left melting puddles all over the kitchen floors—something my mother would scream about if she weren’t in the middle of losing her mind.
“Are you sure she’s losing her mind?” Phoebe said. There was melted snow in her giant curly hair and dotted on her glasses. “It could be delayed grief.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. It’s not like she’s acting sad, exactly. She just—she sits up late at night writing equations on slips of paper all over the table.”
We sat there in the dark kitchen. You could see snow falling in the streetlight through the window. Phoebe tried again. “Maybe she’s worried about money. Maybe she’s sick?”
“Maybe.” I considered. “I don’t think it’s money—she still has her job. And the equations aren’t numbers, they’re letters.”
Phoebe shrugged. “Anyway, I brought you a going away present.” She handed over a purple package. Phoebe loves crafts, and when she feels bad for you she makes stuff and gives it to you. It just happens to be a very Phoebe-ish thing.
“Thanks.” She sat there, looking completely comfortable in my kitchen, which was why I’d called her and asked her to come over: so I could tell her the worst part. Which I hadn’t yet, but I needed to. “So. My mom was talking tonight.”
Phoebe watched me expectantly.
I took a deep breath and tried to make it come out in some way that didn’t sound terrifying. “So she was talking? But there wasn’t anyone there.”
Phoebe’s eyebrows drew together. “Explain.”
So I did. I’d gone upstairs because I had this great idea: If I didn’t want to go to Florida, I should plead my case. I was going to be so calm and reasonable that no one would even recognize me. I’d even been practicing. But when I got to my mom’s room, I heard her voice, low and urgent, saying, “No! I’ll do it. It’s my problem.” But my brothers were downstairs packing, and there was no one else in the house. So who was she talking to?
“Mom?” I walked in and she looked up, panicked, and hid something behind her back.
“Sweetie!” A big, terrifying, totally fake smile. “So!” She tried to remember what she was supposed to say to me. “Um, are you all packed?”
I looked around the room. No one. Nothing. “Who were you talking to, Mom?”
She gave a sort of sideways smile-laugh, like: What are you talking about? She cleared her throat. “No one.”
“Everything’s fine, Alyssa.” She pushed her hair back from her sweaty face. She had a roadrunner bandaid on her finger. “Now go pack. Or did you need something?”
I remembered why I was there, and I crossed my arms. “Mom, I don’t want to go stay with—.”
“Alyssa!” She grabbed my arm and that’s when the thing she’d hidden behind her back dropped to the floor: a rubber lizard with bright red spots on its back. I don’t even know why, but it gave me the worst feeling—this awful shadowy remembering of my dad’s study, just after he died. I stared at it, and she pretended like it was a totally normal thing for a rubber lizard to fall out from behind your back. She brought her face closer to mine. “Sweetie. I need you to cooperate this time.”
I stared at her. I mean, I never really cooperate. Why would I start now? But she wasn’t done. Her eyes slid off to the side. “Also, if anyone tries to contact you—.” She stopped.
“Just ignore them.” She smiled again, like now everything was fine.
“Mom?” I looked down at the rubber lizard. “Were you talking to that?”
She got paler, and for a second she looked almost like she was going to laugh at how ridiculous everything was. And then she smiled, a normal smile this time, except sad. “Alyssa? Go pack. And don’t talk to any lizards.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking.
I finished telling all of it to Phoebe, who shook her head. “It doesn’t sound good.” Unfortunately, that was something I already knew.