Authors: Matthew S. Cox
A Division of
P.O. Box 2160
Reston, VA 20195
Matthew S. Cox
Cover Art by Eugene Teplitsky
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ISBN 978-1-62007-903-4 (ebook)
ISBN 978-1-62007-904-1 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-62007-905-8 (hardcover)
blivious to the rambling voices in the living room, Riley McCullough stared at the shapeless white lump on her plate. They didn’t look like much, but her mother had found the sweet spot of garlic in the mashed potatoes. The salmon smelled fine and the asparagus looked perfect, but she couldn’t bring herself to eat. She caught only one in ten words from the TV, something about stock markets, too boring to tolerate. A steady thrum from the central air unit was more interesting.
She slid her sock-covered feet back and forth over the linoleum. Sitting in a sideways lean, face propped up in her palm and eyes closed, Mom seemed as interested in food as Riley felt. Something wasn’t right. She wasn’t ever this quiet. Today had been the last day of eighth grade, and Mom should’ve been an explosion of questions about her day, what she wanted to do with her summer, and all sorts of the usual parental chatter that occurred every single night.
Riley pouted at her lap. The repeating series of dancing teddy bears on her red pajama pants mocked her with their vapid smiles.
“Your food okay, hon?”
Riley straightened in her seat, taking the weight of her face off her left fist. She let her arm fall flat on the table. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
“What’s bothering you?” Mom attempted to sound comforting, but came off tired.
Oh, yeah, that too.
In addition to Mom being strange, her plans for the most awesome summer ever had gone up in smoke. She’d get to spend the first fourteen days alone and bored.
“Amber’s parents are dragging her off to Puerto Vallarta for two weeks.”
Her mother made a weak attempt at a chuckle. “I’d hardly call that being
“They sprung it on her as a graduation present… we had plans. I can’t believe she’s gonna be gone for two whole weeks. It’s not fair. This is like the
summer before high school.”
“Riley… you’ve got the whole break ahead of you. Two weeks isn’t a big deal. Besides, what plans did you have? Hanging out at the mall?”
“Ugh, Mom…” Riley rolled her eyes. “We’re not mallrats. We were gonna try and start a guild.”
Mom set her fork down and worked her fingers over the bridge of her nose. “You’ll be a freshman in a couple of months, Rile. You can’t spend your whole life shuttered in your bedroom with video games. Have you given any thought to a summer job?”
“No.” Riley stabbed a fork into the lump of potatoes. “I can’t work. I’m only fourteen.”
“Fourteen? Wow, I had no idea.” Mom smirked, though she seemed distracted or exhausted. “I checked groceries when I was your age for a couple hours a day. I’d like you to consider it this year, but I won’t force you. Next year, young lady, is another story.”
Riley poked at her salmon. “I guess I could apply at GameStop or something.”
“Wow, no argument?” Mom pushed herself upright with visible effort. “What’s really bothering you?”
“You’re too quiet.” Riley stared at her plate for a moment. “You’re never this quiet.”
“Oh, I’ve just had a horrible day at the bank. Pritchett’s been riding me about the second quarter customer satisfaction figures, the Fed is coming in for a ‘routine audit,’ and I’ve got a city inspector giving me grief about the building. He can’t seem to understand I’m just the branch manager… I don’t own the damn place.” Mom deflated. “Oh, and Mr. Hensley thinks I’m going to Hell.”
“Pritchett’s the pudgy, bald guy that wears his tie so tight it looks like his head’s gonna pop like a grape?”
Mom laughed once, her expression bleeding to a wince. “Yes, but don’t repeat that at the Christmas party… you’ll get me fired. He’s the district manager, and a complete control freak.”
“Are you okay?” Riley stared into her mother’s eyes. “You look like shit.”
“Just a headache.” Mom closed her eyes and massaged the bridge of her nose. “Oh, and I heard that. Mind your language, Rile.”
Riley grumbled inside, wondering what Mom would think of the way the kids at school talked. She looked up, ready to argue, but the exhausted expression on her mother’s face stalled the argument before it started. “‘Kay.”
“Mmm. Hey, would you mind loading the dishwasher when you’re done? I think I’m going to pop some ibuprofen and close my eyes. Damn stress is getting to me.”
It’s my turn anyway.
Riley glanced at her mother’s glass. “Is that water?”
“I already feel sick. Not up for the Manhattan tonight.”
“Oh, damn. I’ll call Guinness.”
“Hush, you.” Mom scoffed with a hint of a smile. “I don’t drink
For ten-ish minutes, only the clank and scratch of forks and knives on dinnerware broke the silence.
“Looking forward to your first day of summer?” Mom again tried to smile.
“Amber can’t even come over tonight… they’re leaving in the morning. I get to be alone for two weeks.”
“You can get started on your summer reading then. You haven’t even taken them out of the bag yet.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll jump on that right away.”
Mother stood, smiled, and wandered down the hall to the bathroom. Riley glanced through the open archway, the din of financial news from the living room a dull murmur in the back of her consciousness. Mom hadn’t questioned the attitude in her voice. Worry danced in her belly, but maybe the simple truth was she’d been too worn out to start a meaningless argument. They both knew Riley would wind up at least skimming through the books… probably in the last three days before school started.
September felt like an eternity away, too far ahead to worry about now. She picked at her food until the squeak of the bathroom faucet cutting off made her look up. Mom shuffled down the hallway with her eyes closed, swaying as if dizzy. After a moment, she made her way to the living room, bracing a hand along the wall for support. After eating the rest of the fish, half the potatoes, and two sprigs of asparagus, Riley shoved the rest in a small plastic container and fridged it. Mother hated throwing food out, even if it was green vegetables. Riley’s insistence on going vegetarian ‘for the animals’ lasted about six months. Still, pork or beef rarely saw the inside of their kitchen. Chicken and fish provided a routine break from quinoa and various all-veggie things she found online.
Why did Mom ask me to pack the dishwasher? She knows it’s my turn since she cooked.
She gathered utensils, plates, pans, and cups in no particular hurry. Amber would be waiting for her online, so at least they could stay up late tonight, mothers-be-damned. Maybe they could get two weeks’ worth of hanging out accomplished in a few hours. A squirt of detergent in the reservoir preceded her lifting the door with one foot and kicking it closed while stretching to shove the bottle back in an overhead cabinet.
Once the dishwasher started up, she crept up to the archway and peered into the living room. Mom sat askew in the recliner facing the fifty-inch flat screen, a hand on her face as if deep in thought. She had refused to let Riley connect the Xbox to the ‘main TV,’ declaring that one for ‘TV purposes.’ Three middle-aged men in suits sat behind a desk covered in strips of neon, debating stuff about Wall Street.
“You okay, Mom?”
“Fine, fine. Just waiting for the Advil to kick in.” Mother rubbed her temples. “Haven’t had a headache like this since”―she waved her hand around―“since I got promoted.”