Dad doesn’t know. He and my step-mother, Annie, left to go to my half-brother’s Little League game. As soon as I saw the Corolla roll out of view, I went to the left bottom cabinet in the island. There were assorted wines with intricate and seemingly aged labels. I grabbed the Merlot, popped the cork, and lay on the couch flipping channels. I watched Will and Grace for a couple minutes, sipping from the open bottle. I noticed that a quarter of it was gone already and decided that was enough for the evening. I stuffed the cork into the bottle as a commercial came on.
I went to my room and rummaged through my sock drawer. Finding the box of Camels I took out a stick, and then unrolled the pair of red wool socks I got for Christmas and got the lighter. Cigarette and lighter in hand, I went through the French doors to the backyard. Barefoot, I gingerly tiptoed around thick, knotted roots in the ground until I came to the back corner of the yard to the trampoline and climbed onto it. While bouncing in the middle, I lit the cigarette and inhaled. The lowering sun tinted the yard yellow. The grungy dog across the fence that typically barked at squirrel and finches was asleep in a pile of leaves. As I blew out I thought about how wonderful the smell of smoke is.
I remembered the time in seventh grade science when they showed us how bad smoking is for you. They pumped one pig’s lung full of cigarette smoke and left the other lung alone. The cigarette one was black and shiny, like a leather jacket. My science teacher, Mrs. Hunt, emphasized what a terrible thing smoking was and how we should never start. Mrs. Hunt was a slender woman with hair that stuck to her head. She walked around her class barefoot and played Enya CDs while we took tests. Her husband, Rich, would always eat lunch with her on Wednesday, bringing her favorite salad from Soby’s. I always thought that was really nice, that that would be the kind of man I would want to marry.
Then I thought about Annie. She’s a pear-shaped red head, queen of cable knit sweaters, polished nails, and red lipstick. Her long face reflected her morose mood for the first two years I knew her, before she had Spencer. Annie wasn’t a typical stepmother. She didn’t want to replace Mom; she didn’t even want to be a mother figure. She never came to my piano recitals or my fifth grade graduation. She simply told me what chores I needed to do when I got home from school. She had Spencer two years after she and Dad got married. She photographs every moment, goes to every orientation, presentation, and Little League game. She treats me like a tenant.
I closed my eyes breathing the summer air in. When I opened them I saw the red Corolla Annie bought last month roll into the driveway. Even though there was a glare on the windshield, I could still envision their faces. Dad’s eyebrows were almost touching where his hair line would have been, and Annie’s jaw looked slack. I put out the cigarette in the trampoline and hopped off toward the house. I hoped that they hadn’t really seen, that this could all be explained away with one or two lies. Somehow I doubted that.
I ran into the house and back to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I had just gotten the gel on the brush when they both opened the door. Dad held up the bottle I must have left next to the couch and the lighter I had left on the trampoline.
“You want to explain this, Heidi?” he asked. I breathed in and tried to think of a way to explain. Annie looked at me with lips pursed and then looked at the bottle of wine. She scrunched her eyes, clenched her fists, and turned on a disgusted heel to the living room. I shuddered as the French doors slammed. Dad’s eyes never left me. He came into the bathroom. I backed up to the tiled wall as he set the bottle on the counter and then turned around. Soon I heard him join Annie in the backyard.
I stood there frozen for a moment. Holy crap, I thought. I washed the gel off the tooth brush and put it back in the medicine cabinet. I closed the bathroom door. I needed a plan, or a story. A really good one. But nothing would come. I sat on the toilet seat with the bottle of Merlot in my hands when reality hit me: I would be under restriction until I was eighteen and probably sent to therapy again.
The last time I saw Dr. Johnson was right after Mom had died. His office smelled like a mixture of Purell and macchiato. He had a mustache that I sometimes wanted to reach across the table and yank. I would talk about Mom or people at school, and he would scribble down things on a legal pad. Then he would conjecture why I was feeling “this turbulence of emotion” (sometimes even what kind of “turbulence” I was experiencing) and how I could “rein in” the emotion.
A plan finally came to me: I could just walk out. Dad and Annie were in the backyard. Who would stop me? Annie wouldn’t care either way. I would be one less problem for her to deal with. Dad…well, at this point, escaping his wrath seemed like the best option.
So I went to my room and started stuffing my backpack with clothes. I walked to the master bath and grabbed Mom’s wedding band and engagement ring from Dad’s shaving kit. I slipped back into my room, making sure I had everything, when I heard Annie and Dad come back inside. Show time, I whispered to myself. I slipped behind the blinds, clicked the windows open, and slid out. No one could see me from inside. Outside, everything around me was a distinct shade of watercolor blue, like it was painted with the kind of watercolor set Mom got me when I was six. As the street lamps flickered on, I tried to remember how to get to Sean’s. Standing in the yard I knew I still had the option of slipping back into the bedroom window. I could just face up to my mistake and Dr. Johnson. Half of me wanted Dad to come outside and ask what I was doing. I wanted him to storm out and drag me back in. But I knew Sean’s place would be the better than here.
I met Sean in middle school. He was shady even then. The first time I saw him he was wearing a red shirt and dark, baggy jeans. He had a necklace with a slender white tooth on it, like the blade of a scythe. Blonde hair came below his thick eyebrows, his green eyes daring anyone to come up to him. I was across the gym, watching him readjust himself against the wall. Something about the way he carelessly slouched made me want to know him. We locked eyes. After a couple of seconds of staring at each other, he walked over.
Keeping his hands tucked into his arms, he introduced himself. Someone might have thought he was cold, but the gym didn’t have any air conditioning. Up close he smelled like a mixture of cigarette smoke and Axe. His eyes never left mine.
“I’m Heidi”, I said. After that he always slouched next to me. We would sometimes talk about how much homework we had or about how crazy our teachers were. Other times we would just sit there. I liked him. There were no expectations of anything. I didn’t have to explain anything about myself or my life. We could just sit or slouch next to each other in gym, and that would be enough to call us friends. I would hang out with his group of friends on the weekends. They got me into the whole smoking and drinking thing. Sean’s father liked doing both, typically at the same time, and so Sean would steal some of his dad’s stuff and give it to me and some other people.
“Heidi?” I heard Annie say from the front porch. “What are you doing?” I turned around and faced her. Her face was twisted into a question mark. I felt myself panic. I knew I could just run. I was faster than her, and she had leather pumps on. But I took too long considering each option.
“Get inside.” The other eyebrow went up. “Now.” She opened the door. As I walked into the house she jerked the door closed. I headed for my room when she said “Uh-uh. Get back here.” I turned around and saw Dad behind her with his jaw clenched.
“I would do what she says,” he said. I came into the living room and sat down on the couch. I took the backpack off and set it next to me. Annie sat in a wingback chair across from me and Dad sat on the ottoman next to her.
“Does that have drugs in it?” Annie asked, eyeing the back pack. Her arms were folded, red nails drumming her arms.
“I don’t do drugs, Annie,” I said. “Not like you would care anyway,” I muttered.
“What?” she asked. “Heidi, how could you say that?”
I shrugged, picking at the beige, shag carpet.
“Leave it alone Annie,” Dad said putting his hand on her knee. “Heidi, you don’t have any ice to skate on. I would watch it if I were you.” I looked at him. “Now. Could you please explain why we found the Merlot next to the couch with a quarter of it gone? And why the other bottles are missing some wine?” I shrugged again, struggling to come up with a lie to make it all okay. I looked back down at the floor.
“Heidi!” He shouted. “ANSWERS. NOW.” I felt like someone had slapped me across the face.
“I just had some now and again,” I said quickly.
“It looks like you had more than ‘some’, Heidi. Most of the bottles are half empty already. And where did you get cigarettes and a lighter?” I breathed in. I didn’t want to rat Sean out. No telling what he would do to get back at me.
“It’s not that big of a deal, Dad,” I said, trying to be calm. “It’s just a couple of-“
“Not a big deal? It’s a huge deal Heidi!” Annie said. “You’re fifteen. You should be worrying about if your shoes match your outfit, or if those shorts make you look like a boy,” she paused, glanced at me from head to toe, and shook her head quickly, like a tapped bobble head. “You shouldn’t be puffing and drinking your young life away.”
I could feel my lip curl as I tried to restrain the explosions that were occurring inside me. “You wouldn’t care if I did anyway. You just care because Dad does.”
“You know that isn’t true, Heidi.”
“Oh? And how do I know that, Annie? You have never once tried to understand me or my life. You haven’t tried to care about me, Annie. And you know it.”
“That is enough,” Dad said in a low tone. He was really mad. “Heidi, apologize to Annie right now.”
“No. She doesn’t deserve an apology.” He raised one eyebrow.
“Heidi, what do you think your mother would say?” Annie asked.
“You don’t know my mother!” I screamed. How dare she bring my mother into this. What does she know about her?
“Heidi! That is en–”
“Do you know what she was going to do with Mom’s rings?” I asked. I could hear my voice getting louder, feel my face getting warmer.
“What? Heidi –”
“She was going to sell them off. Pawn them. So she could buy Spencer a new baseball bat and glove and some other stupid baseball stuff.”
“Heidi, stop it,” Annie said.
“I’m not lying! I heard you on the phone. You were talking to some Diane woman,” I said, motioning with my hands frantically, trying to make Dad understand. “She was going to give them to Diane to pawn off, and they would split half of the profits. She said that you wouldn’t mind, because Cassie had already passed on.” I felt tears start to bubble up. “She felt creepy having those rings around the house, like Cassie was still around, watching her or something.” He looked at Annie who was the color of ash. Her eyes were huge. Dad’s face fell.
“Heidi. Go to your room.”
“Dad, I’m –”
“Just go.” I stood up feeling defeated, grabbed my backpack, and walked down the hall. I closed my and sat down on the green carpet. I rummaged through my backpack and found the rings. They were on a simple silver chain that used to hold a monogrammed locket before I lost it. I put them on my finger. They were cool and smooth. The diamond on the engagement ring fractured the overhead light into pale shades of pink and green. “I love, I hope” was the inscription on the inside of the wedding band.
One time when I was really small I took the rings off of the bathroom counter while she was showering. I put them on and went outside to the trampoline. I looked at them on my finger. They were too big for me. I could put two fingers through the holes, but I remember thinking how beautiful they were. Silver studded with emerald, white gold with a square diamond on top. Mom came out panicked, convinced that I had lost or eaten them. When she saw that I was wearing them she laughed.
“Sorry, honey, but only one of us can be married to Daddy,” she said.
I never got to visit her in the hospital. Dad would hire a babysitter to get me from school and she would stay with me until Dad got home. He typically had an Oreo with me before I went to bed. The next morning we would have cereal together and then he would drop me off at Paris Elementary School. One morning I asked him where Mommy was, and when she was going to come home. His adam’s apple rose up his neck like mercury in a thermometer.
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” he said. His eyes were wet and soon he went to his room. I got to Mrs. Ward’s class late that day.
He told me that the rings were mine before the funeral. He said that I couldn’t wear them to school, only on special occasions. He would keep them until he thought I was old enough to have them. I was wearing the necklace the day he and Annie got married. Dad didn’t mind so much, thought it was good for me. Something about uniting past and future. Annie, however, looked like a squeezed lemon whenever she looked at the necklace. I wanted Mom to be as much a part of their marriage as she is a part of me. Annie wanted to start over. Annie still wanted to start over.
I was in my room working on homework that afternoon when Annie’s was on the phone with Diane. The way she talked…the way she said Mom’s name. It was as if she knew her. I wanted to come out of my room and shout that she didn’t know my mother, and to stop acting like she did. That she was never going to put her lacquered, filed nails on those rings. But she would have just laughed at me and taken the rings anyway. Then it would be my word against Annie, and although that had never happened before, I didn’t want to imagine the outcome.
There was a knock on my door. Dad opened the door and then shut it behind him. He sat down on the floor next to me, watching me twirl the rings around my finger. I took them off and set them next to me.
“You’re grounded. Until Christmas, if you behave perfectly,” he said. “You have to come to Spencer’s ball games, and you aren’t to leave the stands. You’re going to meet with Dr. Johnson three times a week. Whatever he recommends, therapy groups, medicine, whatever…you’re going to do it, understand?” I nodded. “I – we –are really disappointed in you, Heidi. We thought you were more grown up than this. We thought we could trust you, that you would make wiser decisions.” I nodded again.
“What about the rings?” I asked.
“You’ll keep them,” he replied, picking up the rings. “I suppose you’re old enough now.” He gave a tired smile.
“Did you and Annie have a fight?” I asked.
“We had a discussion.”
“Ah,” I said. “Where’s Spencer?”
“He’s spending the night with one of his teammates.” I nodded. I watched his fingers trace over each ring, over the stones and then his finger traced the inside of the rings, over the inscription. “Heidi, take care of these rings.” He put them on my finger. I thought about the pictures of Mom and Dad’s wedding, the ones that were in scrapbooks under the guest bed. The ones Annie thought Dad had thrown out.