“On a camping trip. Daddy, maybe you should come home. Something could be really wrong.” I pause carefully. “She could’ve had an accident or something. A car accident.”

Daddy curses under his breath. “That woman …”

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I wait. I’ve planted the seed; he’s worried now. Even though he’s mad, he’s worried, too.

“Sit tight, Annemarie,” he says at last. “I’ll be there as fast as I can.”

It takes about three hours to get from Atlanta to Clementon. Daddy makes it home in just over two. Mama still hasn’t come back. We sit on the couch and wait.

“It’s just like your mama to pull something like this,” Daddy says, twisting his tie loose.

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I’m starting to regret this already. “She might be hurt somewhere, Daddy.”

He just shakes his head.

Mama comes home around 2:30 a.m. She is drunk. When she sees Daddy sitting on the couch, her happy smile fades. She looks confused. “What in the world are you doin’ home, Billy?”

“I’m home because our daughter called me,” Daddy says. He’s so angry, his voice shakes. “Annemarie was worried sick.”

“Gail and I had a drink after work,” Mama says, her hand fluttering to her forehead. The confusion is gone, and defensiveness is starting to creep into her voice. “I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing. Annemarie, I told you I’d be home late tonight. Why did you go calling your daddy?” She looks at me like I’ve betrayed her, like I’m not her daughter anymore.

My mouth is dry. Licking my lips, I say, “I-I guess I forgot.”

Daddy stands up and strides over to Mama in two big steps. He looks like he wants to shake her, like he’s going to shake her. “She walked home from school in the dark! You were supposed to pick her up from school! Do you know what can happen to a child in the dark, Grace? Do you? Do you even care?”

Mama looks at Daddy like he’s slapped her. “Of course I care!” She looks at me then, eyes pleading. “Shug, babydoll, I’m sorry. I just forgot.”

Before I can speak, Daddy says harshly, “You’re pathetic.”

Jumping up from the couch, I shout, “Don’t say that to her! Don’t you say that to her!”

“Annemarie, go to your room,” Daddy says, in a low voice. It is an order.

“No,” I say. My fists are clenched at my sides. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

“I told you to go to your room,” he says. Every word is clipped, precise. “I’m not going to tell you again.”

He’s so angry, I’m scared. Scared of my own daddy. But I don’t move. “Why should I? I can hear you two up there, too, you know.”

“Annemarie,” he warns. The muscle in his jaw is twitching.

“Go on, Shug,” Mama says. “I mean it; go upstairs. This is between me and your daddy.”

I look at her then, really look at her. To her I say, “You know what? You’re both pathetic.”

Then I run upstairs and slam my door. As soon as the door closes, I start to cry. I went and told on Mama. Now everything’s wrong.

They fight for a long time. I lay there in the dark, listening for as long as I can. I hear Mama say, “If you hate your life here so much, you should just stay gone.”

I don’t move. I wait to hear what he’ll say next.

(Don’t go, don’t go.)

Daddy says, “Darlin’, I’m not the one who hates her life. That’s you. You’re the one who can’t stand to be here.”

That’s about all I can take. I reach for the headphones on my nightstand and turn my music up loud. I fall asleep and dream and dream.

Daddy’s gone when I wake up. It’s like he was never here at all.

Chapter 31

After school Elaine and I are in my bedroom doing homework, and she says, “So Mairi invited us to sleep over on Friday. Do you want to go?” She fingers the lace edge on the quilt Grandma Shirley made me when I was born.

I look up from my math worksheet. “She invited us or you?”

“She invited both of us.”

“Who else did she invite?”

Elaine ticks the names off her fingers. “It’s gonna be me, you, Jo Jo Washington, and Hadley.” Jo Jo Washington was the queen bee at Lincoln Elementary, and Mairi has deemed her cool enough to hang with us. I think Jo Jo is a dumb name, almost as dumb as Jo Jo herself.

“Have fun,” I say.

“Come on, Annemarie. Do you want to go or not?”

“Not.”

Elaine sighs. “Mairi’s really not so bad when you get to know her.”

“How would you know? You’re the one who doesn’t know her. I’ve known her my whole life, Elaine. Don’t tell me I don’t know Mairi Stevenson.”

“Fine. Forget it.”

“You go. I’ll be busy anyway.”

“Busy doing what?”

Busy picking hair up off the carpet. Busy de-ticking Meeks. Busy counting my freckles. Busy feeling sorry for myself.

“Celia and me are doing something.”

“Annemarie, you’re a lousy liar. Come on. Let’s just go. Please? I don’t want to go without you.”

I don’t want her to go without me either. But.

Being the girl at the slumber party no one wants around is a terrible thing. She’s the one the mom has to befriend. She’s the one no one wants to sit with at dinner, or split the last piece of pizza with. She’s the one the other girls whisper about when she goes to brush her teeth. (“She’s so annoying … No offense, Annemarie.”) She used to be Sherilyn, and I can’t let her be me.

If I go to Mairi’s sleepover, I know that I’ll be the one shunted off to Siberia, sleeping on the cot while everyone else doubles up on Mairi’s twin beds. I know because once upon a time, Sherilyn slept on the cot while I got to sleep under Mairi’s patchwork quilt. And the worst part is that I didn’t even care that Sherilyn was all alone. You can’t afford to care; you’ve just got to enjoy your time at the fair and be glad. I was glad I wasn’t the one on the cot; I was glad I wasn’t the one who didn’t have someone to whisper with as we fell asleep.

But what will happen if Elaine goes to the sleepover without me? What if they seduce her with their sparkly nail polish and their Truth or Dare? Then I’ll be the one left behind. I’ll be Sherilyn.

“Fine. I’ll go. But I’m telling you, it won’t be fun.”

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