“Out of town? For what? Are you telling me you can’t be bothered to call, but you’ve had time to book a holiday?”

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The flinty tone to his voice had my stomach rolling. The weight of fatigue and frustration pressed against my chest, and I just wanted to lie across the bed and curl into a ball. I hadn’t meant to say anything about the trip, but I had no filter when I was tired. If he pressed too much more, I would tell Stephen all about the trip to Kentucky, the Elements, and the shirtless neighbor I may or may not have flirty butterfly feelings for.

“No, no, nothing like that,” I said. “It’s for . . . work. I can’t tell you much about it. Just boring old clinical stuff, really.”

“If it’s just boring old clinical stuff, why can’t you tell me about it?”

I was sincerely regretting that I’d backed myself into a corner with this line of lying, because he had a good point. “Look, let’s just talk about something else, OK?”

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“What are you up to over there that you’re not telling me about, Nola?” he demanded.

“What are you implying?” I shot back.

“I mean, this sudden offer of a mysterious job you’d never mentioned before, the urgency of leaving right away, the fact that this hospital you claim to work for doesn’t have you listed among its nursing fellows. I want to know what you’re really doing over there and who you’re spending your time with!” His voice rose to an angry shout. That shocked the hell out of me, because at that time of day, he was at the office, where he rarely ever showed emotion, much less lost control of it.

“You’ve been checking up on me?”

“You gave me no choice!”

“You did have a choice. You could have believed me.” I should have dialed down my righteous indignation, the logical part of my brain knew that. But somehow the fatigue and the fact that he was accusing me of something I had successfully resisted so far—cheating on him with Jed—fueled the irrational portion of my brain and its control over my verbal faculties. Ignore the fact that he’s right not to believe you, Nola, it told me, and that you were quite tempted to kiss Jed the other night. You have every right to be virtuously indignant! Virtuously!

“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this,” I told him. “If you don’t trust me, that’s your problem. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I’m tired of coming last in your life, Nola. You need to make our life together more of a priority.”

“We don’t have a life together, Stephen. We have your life and my life, and occasionally they intersect.”

“And whose fault is that?” he demanded. “I’ve done everything I can to lure you away from that circus you call a family. And you fight me at every turn! I’m only doing what’s best for you.”

The use of that phrase and his superior tone, as if I were a naughty child he had to steer, struck a long-buried nerve deep within me. A hot, angry bubble burst forth from my throat in the form of “I don’t have time for this. I’m going to sleep now, because I am exhausted. You would know that if you asked me one single question that had to do with my day or my work or even how I am. All you ever ask is why I had to come here in the first place and when I’m coming home. I’m sick of it. Don’t call me anymore. If I decide that I want to talk to you again, I might call you.”

On the other end of the line, he gasped. “You don’t mean that.”

“The hell I don’t.” And then I hung up.

I clapped my hands over my mouth, shocked at the words that had just spilled from my lips. Their tone, the sound of my voice, had sounded so much like hers that it frightened me to my soul. The wretched, angry altered state of it, as if I was barely hanging on to the faculties that kept me from strangling the nearest bystander. I let out a stifled little sob and swiped my hands across my eyes. The memory of that voice sent waves of panic and distress through my belly, to the point that I bent at the knees and worked sincerely at not running to the bathroom and throwing up.

I focused on breathing in through my nose and out of my mouth. I pictured that spare white room that hadn’t been so successful with Jane’s Ouija die experiment and willed a feeling of peace and calm to spread from my chest to my arms and legs, to steady my hands. I exhaled loudly, forcing my fingers to scoop up the neatly stacked pile of clothes and stuff them into my overnight bag. Then I added toiletries and a Dakota Cassidy paperback I’d picked up at the shop.

Satisfied that I’d completed the task, I stripped and slid into bed without bothering to shower. My stomach was still roiling. I pressed my face into the pillow and prayed for it to settle. The dark room and exhaustion finally led me to an uneasy sleep, with thoughts of my mother creeping into my head.

I was twelve. I was running home from school, my “grown-up” plain Jansport backpack bouncing against my spine as I kept my face tilted to the late-afternoon sun. Pretty, popular Katie Jordan had asked me to her big sleepover birthday party at school that day, and I desperately wanted to go. I was already coming up with a logical, well-constructed argument for why Dad should allow this, even though he didn’t know Katie or her parents very well and was pretty strict about that sort of thing. My ace in the hole was that my best friend, Allie Noonan, was going, and Dad often caved to parental peer pressure when it came to Allie’s privileges.

Just thinking about that afternoon, I could feel the warm rays of light on my face. I could feel the weight of the backpack against my shoulders and the way the sun caught my long dark hair, much longer than it was now. I was so happy, giddy at the possibility of being Katie Jordan’s friend, of climbing the social ladder a bit and escaping the dreaded curse of “middle-school nobody,” that my chest ached with it.

I nearly tripped coming up the steps to our house, which was a frequent occurrence, what with my coltish limbs and oversized feet. I called out to my dad before I even got the door open, but the moment I walked in, I could sense a chill in the house, a weight to the air that made it harder to breathe. My good mood deflated immediately. My mother was back.

A silly, babyish part of me wanted to drop my backpack and run for Allie’s house. My mother had been bouncing in and out of our lives for years, coming back every once in a while when she ran out of money or just forgot how little use she had for Dad and me.

For a few weeks, everything would be roses. She was “centered” now, she’d promise, and she had gotten her priorities straight. But after a few weeks, that desperate edge would come back to her voice, the wild look in her eyes, and she would disappear again. Usually with whatever pawnable objects we had lying around the house. After three years of losing it, I learned to stuff all of my birthday money into a sock in my laundry hamper. She never looked there.

Having recently graduated from my school’s DARE program, I thought my mother was a drug addict, but Dad swore she’d never had that problem. He just said Mom was restless and confused and didn’t know what she was missing, not being able to watch me grow up. Even then, I knew he didn’t believe it, either.

As I came in, I stumbled over the little pink rolling suitcase by the front door. It was my suitcase, the one I used when Dad and I took summer trips to Cape Cod. For a terrifying moment, I thought Dad had decided to give me over to her, and I considered grabbing the bag and running for Allie’s house after all. Then I heard my dad yelling. I’d never heard Dad raise his voice to my mother before, even when she pawned his mother’s brooch. But now he was giving her what for.

“You think I’m going to let you walk out the door with my daughter?” he shouted. “Not this time, Anna. I’ve put up with your bullshit for years, hoping you’d come back and be a decent mother to our child—that sweet, smart little girl, who still loves you despite the fact that you checked out as soon as she could walk. No more, do you hear me? I won’t let you drag her down with you.”

I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for my father. Dad hadn’t seemed to catch on to the fact that any remaining daughterly adoration I had for my mother had faded several “returns” ago. My dad was my whole family. He was the one who sewed the patches on my Brownie uniform. He made sure my lunches were packed and learned to French-braid my hair. He suffered the indignity of shopping for my first training bra. I’d figured out my mother’s limitations a long time before that.

To my surprise, my mother’s voice was even, calm. I’d never heard her so casual and cool before, and that scared the hell out of me. Her being sure of her “rights” in any situation was not a good thing. “You have no say in this matter. This is her birthright. She may be your daughter, but she’s a McGavock first. Really, Martin, you can’t keep her from me.”

What was she talking about? I didn’t know much about my mom’s family. All Dad would tell me was that they lived in Ireland and they believed in things that not everybody believed in. He’d liked the McGavocks when he’d met them, he said, but Mom didn’t want to have anything to do with them when she moved to the States to be married. And now my mother seemed to want to haul me away to some sort of McGavock indoctrination camp?

“Don’t act like I shut her off from your family!” Dad exclaimed. “I was all for traveling to see them, making sure that Nola at least got to meet her grandmother. But you haven’t exactly fostered an open relationship with them. Don’t blame me that she’s been cut off from her heritage.”

“Daddy?” I said, stepping into the kitchen.

“Hi, honey,” he said, schooling his features into a loving, untroubled expression. “How was school?”

My parents were so different, it seemed impossible that they had been married. Dad was tall and trim, with thick dark-blond hair and warm blue eyes. He was wearing his work clothes for Boston Medical Center, a crisp white shirt with the red-and-blue checked tie I’d given him for Father’s Day. My mother looked as if she was ready to head out to a club, in too-tight jeans and a clingy, silky red shirt that was cut low in the front. Silver bangles clanked against both wrists. Her eye makeup was heavy and dark, making her already large brown eyes appear even bigger. Her mouth was painted a bold bloodred.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

She frowned, that lovely motherly energy fading like mist. “I haven’t seen you in almost a year, and that’s the hello I get?”

I ratcheted up my voice to a level of cheer only my father would recognize as my “dealing with an annoying babysitter” voice. “Hello! What are you doing here?”

“Can’t a mother come see her daughter without a special reason?”

I looked to my dad, who was glaring at my mother as if he could make her explode with the power of his mind. I returned my own gaze to her face. Underneath the makeup, I could see the signs of aging. Her lipstick was feathering into the network of tiny wrinkles around her mouth. Permanent dark circles had begun to form under her eyes. Those eyes were sharp and calculating as she looked me over.

“So tell me all about school,” she said, her lyrical voice ingratiating and saccharine sweet. “Are your grades still good? Are you still playing soccer?”

I stared at her, long and hard, without saying a word.

“Oh, fine, I do have a reason for coming to see you. I just thought it was time for you to come live with me!” Mom said, smiling brightly. “I’ve been staying at this beautiful place in Florida. We’re right on the beach, and it’s so lovely and warm. And there’s enough room for you. I mean, I know you’ve never liked Boston, Nola. Your dad told me you don’t have any real friends.”

“I never said anything of the sort!” Dad protested.

Mom rolled her eyes and shared this weird little wink with me, as if we were conspirators. “Don’t you want to spend some time with me? You’ve been living with your dad for so long. Don’t you think I deserve some time, too? A girl needs her mother, Nola. You need me.”

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