Personally, I felt that not falling asleep while driving home was quite an accomplishment. A small one, maybe, but rather significant, considering what the consequences of falling asleep could have been. Besides, I needed to feel accomplished. School was pretty unremarkable today, and my six-hour shift at McDonald's sure hadn't provided a reason to feel accomplished. (Congratulations, you correctly made change for a 99¢ item yet again.) And there was still such a long list of things left to accomplish. I sighed, turned off the car, and braced myself for the cold outside and the long night ahead.
And for my mother, of course. It was probably too much to hope that she was asleep. I hadn't been home to mommy-sit, which meant she'd almost certainly spent her time drinking. It wasn't late enough for her to have passed out, but it was late enough for her to be completely, ridiculously, tottering around, falling down drunk. Which she did, as she opened the front door. She fell forward, banging into the screen door with a funny surprised shriek, and landed in a heap on the porch. The screen door hit her and got stuck on its way back to being closed.
I jumped out of the car, ran across the yard, and bounded up the steps. She was mumbling something incoherent, which I ignored as I dragged her into a sitting position, then to something that barely passed as standing. Miraculously, most of her beer had remained in its bottle during her fall. Maybe that was the trick, because she sure didn't earn any points for the landing. I moved to take the bottle away—
"No!" She pointed for emphasis. Not with a finger, but with the bottle. Its contents soaked the front of my coat.
"Mom." I reached for it again.
She jerked her hand backwards, splashing the wall with everything she hadn't gotten on my coat.
"Fine." The bottle was empty, and she was upright, and sadly, that was pretty good. I shoved past her into the hallway.
"Where do you think you're going?"
I turned, stripping off my beer-infused coat. To write an essay, to outline three history chapters, to take a stab at some math that won't make sense, to maybe get some sleep so I'm charged up and ready to go for another day just like this.
"Nooooo, no no no no. That's all you want to do when you get home. You spend all night out doing God knows what—"
"and then you come home and hide away doing some more God knows what—"
"and it's time you started contributing and earning your keep here."
"Mom, I'm earning more—"
"Which means, a job. Now, get back out there and offer up everything a seventeen-year-old girl can offer to a lonely man on a cold night."
"There's no shame in prostitution, dear, it's the world's oldest profession."
She pushed me towards the door. I made a grab for my coat—better to smell than to be frozen—but—
"No need to cover yourself up any more, get out there."
Another push, and I found myself standing on the porch, cold, hungry, and completely bewildered. I heard the door lock behind me.
Well, damn. My house key was in the pocket of my coat. For that matter, so was my car key. I had no option but to walk the streets like a prostitute, since sitting on my porch all night didn't sound appealing.
I started walking, hunched forward, hands balled up in my sweatshirt pocket. I moved quickly, as much for warmth as out of anger. She had dropped to a new low with this, this throwing me out of the house and telling me to whore myself around. The woman said plenty of crazy things when she was drunk, but if I hadn't heard her myself I'd be questioning this one.
I walked faster. I couldn't pinpoint the reason, but something about the cold, dark, night was seriously freaking me out. I just felt that if I turned around, there would be some creepy guy behind me in a trenchcoat. I checked, and there was no one, trenchcoat-wearing or otherwise, but the image stayed in my head. Surely it was only there because my mother had mentioned lonely men on cold nights. Surely my imagination was just inventing potential customers who would never actually materialize because I was never going to become a prostitute.
I pulled out my phone. 9:38. I'd been out for maybe ten minutes. I was pretty sure that the best thing for Mom was to stay out for a while, lie when I came home, and let her think that business was great. Never mind that you could stay out every night for a month and never get any business—I think the creepy horny men in our town know enough to go to the dirty back alleys of the city on their sex quests. Prostitution just doesn't fit with the quiet, safe atmosphere of our suburban streets.
I stopped under a streetlight. I wasn't sure if that made me safer or not. It would be really stupid to attack someone standing in a puddle of light, but it might have been really stupid of me to step into the puddle in the first place. I looked around for creepy trenchcoat guy before turning my attention to my phone. I was only a few streets over from Riley's house, and with any luck—
are you home?
I waited, feeling incredibly exposed under the bright light. It was like I was on a stage, or something—except that an audience out in that darkness was the last thing I wanted.
My phone vibrated.
I took off running instead of replying. It was easier than trying to manipulate my phone with numb fingers. The explanation would get there almost as fast, and it might as well be in person.
I arrived on his porch three minutes later, completely out of breath. I bent over, hands on knees, wanting my breathing to become semi-regular before he actually saw me. Still breathing heavily, I moved to ring the doorbell at the exact moment that Riley opened the door.
He glanced up and down, appearing concerned by what he saw. "Are you okay?"
I shrugged. "Is this… a bad time?" I panted.
"No… I'm just doing calculus homework. Interruptions for the win. Seriously, what's going on?" He moved aside to let me in.
"Well, Mummy wants me to become a prostitute."
"Ahh. So you're going door to door, offering your services."
I smacked him a little too hard to call it playful. "Riley. No."
"Sorry… So, that's pretty ridiculous, even for her."
"Thank you! But yeah, I have no idea where this came from. I got home and she accused me of spending all my nights 'out doing God knows what' when she should know I'm slaving away at my glamorous minimum wage McDonald's job so I have some hope of getting an education so I can become more than a glamorous minimum wage McDonald's worker. But apparently, that's not good enough and I need to start 'earning my keep' because, you know, I don't do anything, and she's doing so much being drunk off her ass all the time while I'm working at freaking McDonald's where they don't even appreciate me enough to let me eat. Riley, I'm working in a fast-food restaurant and they wouldn't let me eat food that I was perfectly willing to pay for. It's not—"
"Are you hungry?"
"I'm serious. I wouldn't ask just to torment you. Do you want food?"
"Food would be delightful."
"I was kind of hungry for cookies before you got here. I mean, we'd have to bake them and whatnot, so if you're looking for an instant fix—"
"Cookies are good."
"Awesome." He turned on the oven and began to gather ingredients. "So, is that legal? Not letting people eat for…?"
"Six hours? I have no idea. I mean, there were really unusual circumstances today. I usually eat. It's not like it's every day that the pregnant slut's water breaks while she's standing over the fryer and I have to mop up the mess as she's being taken to the hospital by the other, non-pregnant, slut, leaving me with the non-slutty but very scary manager Stella who wouldn't let me eat because if I took a break she might actually have to do something, which would just kill her, I'm sure, and—Riley, you're not using a recipe."
"So you just… know what you're doing?"
"It's been known to happen, yeah."
"No, I mean—I wasn't expecting that."
"I think you've seen more unexpected things today."
"True… God, she's going to be such a terrible mother. I mean, first, she's sixteen and giving birth. That's a problem. Second, she spends half her time talking about how awful the father is—after she narrowed down the possibilities and figured out which one she was supposed to be complaining about, I mean, because let me tell you, she's not monogamous. Then she spends the other half of her time talking about these wild orgy parties where she practices polygamy and gets drunk. That's absolutely fantastic for the baby, I'm sure, all the drinking. And the smoking. Every break, she pops outside for a cigarette. That's great for both of them. And how does the baby feel about being in the middle—seriously, the middle—of her skanky sexcapades? That's disturbing. Pregnant people shouldn't have sex. Or, you know, at least limit it to the father. But—I mean, she doesn't even have the excuse of being a Mormon. I'm pretty sure she's got no religion, and Mormons are pretty crazy, but they might actually be a help to her. Get her off the alcohol, anyway. Maybe her next baby will have an IQ above 70—"
"I'm sorry, that was pretty terrible—"
"No—well, yeah, it was, but—no, I was going to ask if you wanted to mix the dough. It might be therapeutic."
"Oh." I had failed to notice that Riley had filled the bowl with all the necessary ingredients while I'd been ranting. "Yeah, that might be good."
Feeling that maniacal laughter might be appropriate, I grabbed the mixer, turned it on, and plunged the whirring mixer things into the bowl. The pile of flour on top sent up a white puff that settled on all nearby surfaces, including Riley's black shirt.
"Yeah, you want to try to avoid that."
I was tempted to aim the mixer at him, but then I'd just get half-mixed dough all over the place. I finished mixing the dough, turned the mixer off, pulled the mixer things out of the mixer, and proceeded to lick off the dough that was stuck to them.
"It's fine, I'm done mixing, I'm not going to stick them back in there."
"Actually, I wasn't worried about that. I was more concerned about you dying of… one of those raw cookie dough diseases."
"Riley, do you know anyone who's actually run into problems because they ate raw cookie dough?"
"No, but I don't want to start with you."
"Riley, you seem to have missed an important part of your childhood. I'm going to be a good person and help you fill in that gap."
"You gonna fill in my grave after I die?"
"You're not going to die from eating raw cookie dough."
He stood there, arms crossed, glaring at me.
I scraped together a ball of dough, grinning wickedly.
I took a step closer, and he backed away an equal distance.
"Seriously, Liz, it can't possibly be good enough to—"
I continued to approach, he continued to retreat, and I realized just how I could use that to my advantage. I backed him out of the kitchen, into the family room, and right into the arm of the couch, which he tripped over backwards. His mouth was open in surprise, and I easily popped the ball of dough into it.
He frowned, but he didn't spit it out, and I could tell he was enjoying it, if against his will. He swallowed the last of the dough and rolled off the couch.
"You enjoyed that."
"Lies." He stood up, walked back to the kitchen, and put some more dough in his mouth just as I entered.
I raised an eyebrow.
"It's not that I like it. I just have a death wish, that's all."
I pulled the bowl of dough toward me and began separating out individual cookies.
"So, suicide by raw cookie dough?"
"Uh-huh." He got out a couple trays to put cookies on. "I think it'll look nice on my death certificate."
"Yeah, Riley, I can't wait to see that."
"You won't, you had some too. If I go, you're going."
"Well, it takes care of the 'I want to die first so I don't have to see you die.' 'No, I want to die first so I don't have to see you die.' Argument we had when we were nine."
"True… you know, I've thought about that since then, and it's kind of selfish to want to die first."
"Because you're saving yourself the pain of dealing with someone's death and letting them deal with it instead. You should want to save them from experiencing pain."
"Wouldn't that involve the other person dying first?"
"Well, yeah. Most people aren't going to say, 'Hey, I want you to die before me so that you don't have to stick around for my death.' I mean, you're not going to tell your friend you want them to die, and you're not going to imply that your own death will be some huge event that'll be worse than their own death."
"But your death would be worse than mine. I won't be around to grieve after mine."
"So… would you like me to die first at a young, cruel age so that you can grieve and then move on and live an otherwise happy, wonderful life?"
"Liz, there's no right answer to that question. You could find fault with any answer I gave."
"Not if you thought outside the box and said you'd prefer that we both lived forever."
"Slightly impossible. And then we would have to deal with everyone else's deaths."
"Minor details. And if it's impossible, then you can just live knowing that everyone's going to die, but you can say you want us to live forever because it sounds nice and ends the argument of who should die when."
"Well then, let's go start that quest for eternal life."
I chuckled, picked up the trays of cookies, moved to put them in the oven, and realized I'd just need to put them down again to open it. Riley, having thought through the process a little better, opened the oven before I could set the cookies down.
My stomach growled obnoxiously.
"You know, that won't actually encourage the oven to bake them any faster."
"It should. That oven should fear my hunger-induced wrath."
"Mm-hmm." He walked into the family room, facing forward this time, and sat on the couch instead of sprawling unexpectedly on it.
I followed him, surveying the room more thoughtfully than I had a few minutes ago. His calculus book was laying open on the floor, surrounded by a mess of notes and examples. His homework appeared to be laying on top of it all, a couple pages full of mostly crossed out work and a few actual answers.
I gestured at the textbook. "You shouldn't have taken that. I mean, you're brilliant, but this year is killing you."
"It's not treating you so well, either."
"At least I gave up after precalc."
"But you're taking every other ridiculous class that I am, and you have a job."
"McDonald's and calculus are hardly comparable."
"McDonald's takes up more time, though."
"Probably not by much. And calculus takes up more brains."
"I win. Your life sucks more than mine."
"You win because your life sucks less, or because you were right and this year is killing me."
"I win because you love me enough to let me come here when my mother doesn't even want me. And because you bake cookies for me."
"That's an awful lot. What do I win?"
"Well, there are my door-to-door prostitution services."
"What's wrong with me?"
First, if you were a prostitute, you would be carrying a plethora of STDs. Second, I would never touch a prostitute, partly because of the first thing, partly because of my morals. Third, this is a ridiculous hypothetical situation, because I would never let you become a prostitute."
"I wasn't being serious."
"I know. But I still kind of was."
"Good to know you have steadfast morals."
"That I do."
"But you let me become a McDonald's employee, which is only a step or two up from prostitution."
"True. You're an agent of the devil either way. But you're only killing your customers at McDonald's. It would be a mutual thing if you were a prostitute. You share your chlamydia, they share their AIDS, and everyone lives sadly ever after for maybe ten years."
"Well, that's unfortunate."
"Those are the risks you take when you choose to become, and/or have sex with, a prostitute."
"Now to convince my mother that those risks aren't worth it…"
"What does it matter? You're not actually going to become one."
"No, but as long as she thinks I am one, she'll expect me to stay out every night. And she might expect to see the money."
"Maybe she'll forget that she sent you into that line of work."
"Maybe… she seems to have forgotten about my other job."
The oven timer beeped for the cookies. I'd managed to forget about my hunger, and I hadn't noticed the smell of the cookies baking, but the beeping timer brought me back to the rest of the world the way my alarm clock did every morning. I hurried to shut it off, and Riley ran to get the cookies out of the oven.
After shutting off the timer, I turned toward Riley to find him attempting to peel a cookie from the sheet without burning his fingers. The still-gooey cookie separated and became deformed as he poked at it, being unable to touch the sheet or the hot cookie mess for long enough to accomplish anything.
"They make utensils for that, you know."
He rolled his eyes but conceded to grab a spatula to round up the cookies. He scooped up the deformed cookie and its neighbor and offered them to me.
Silly question, what with it being almost ten-thirty and me not having eaten since eleven-thirty, but answering would have wasted more time. I grabbed them with a quick "thanks"—I could spare one syllable—and proceeded to gobble them up as the fat man gobbles his Big Macs after weeks of failed dieting. Riley tilted his head slightly, watching my greedy intake of food, but made no judgment and turned away to put the rest of the cookies on a plate. He offered the plate as soon as he'd placed all of the cookies on it. I'd already finished the first two and saw no good way to deny wanting more, so I took one. Riley took one as well, and we ate in a comfortable silence, him leaning on the oven, me leaning on the counter.
I felt safe taking a fourth cookie after Riley had finished his and taken another. We went back and forth until there was one left. It was my turn, but I'd taken three before Riley had taken one.
"Go for it, I've had plenty."
"Yeah, but I had dinner, which I know you didn't have, and I had breakfast, which is pretty questionable with you."
"But I had lunch, so it's now irrelevant that I didn't eat breakfast. And this is as healthy as anything I would have eaten at work, so dinner doesn't matter either."
"No," said Riley, shaking his head. "That's really terrible logic."
"Yeah…" I heard the door opening. "Or we could let your mom have it, because it's a bit late for the 'hide the evidence and pretend there were never any cookies here' plan."
"That's… pretty good logic."
"It's been known to happen, yeah."
Riley's mom walked into the kitchen, sniffing as she set down her purse and shrugged off her coat.
"Hi, Mrs. Wilson."
"Hey, Mom. Liz came over and we baked cookies. There's… well, there's one left."
"I thought I smelled cookies when I came in. Baking cookies, there's a nice, wholesome activity. I always worry when Crystal comes over—"
"—that you'll have sex—"
"I've never had sex with Crystal—"
"But you don't exactly spend your time with her baking cookies, either."
"—and I don't plan to any time soon."
"He really doesn't," I threw in. "He has steadfast morals."
"I do. She tried to seduce me, but I convinced her that cookies would be better than sex."
"Your son does make pretty yummy cookies."
"I know. I won't ask about the other."
"I couldn't tell you anything anyway."
"Whoa! It's time for you to go home." He dragged me out of the kitchen as I attempted to wave to Mrs. Wilson. She winked in return. "I'm sorry, but it is."
I smirked. "So if you and Crystal don't exactly bake cookies—"
"Do you want a ride home?"
"Nah… I don't need my mom wondering why a customer is driving me around."
"Like she'll actually be awake to see it. Or sober enough to question it."
I shrugged. "It's not that far."
"No, but it's cold… although, apparently, you don't require a coat."
"I tried to grab it before I left, but then I got pushed outside in a hurry… Besides, it's drenched with alcohol."
"Oh. Well then…" He opened the hall closet and pulled out one of his coats, a long black one that would probably reach my knees. "Here."
"Sure you're fine with walking?"
"Okay… well, hang on to that until you can get yours normal-smelling again."
"Will do. 'Bye."
"See you. Be safe."
And I should be happy with that, I thought, as I crossed the yard and headed for the sidewalk. With walking away wearing your coat and knowing that you want me to be safe. It's more than anyone else would do, even my mother. Considering her problem, that's not saying much, but just considering that she's my mother, that's saying a lot.
But it's not enough. Not while Crystal's in your life. Not while you can casually tell your mom that try as I might to seduce you, you refused to have sex with me. It's not that I want to seduce you—it's a creepy, awkward verb, something I'd look foolish if I tried to do—or have sex with you. It's that those ideas are obviously completely foreign to you. We fell into that best friends mold in first grade, and the idea of being anything else hasn't crossed your mind in ten years.
I remembered the questionably imaginary trenchcoat guy and half-wished I'd thought twice about that ride home. But sooner or later Riley would have noticed that something was wrong—not, my-crazy-mother-wants-me-to-be-a-prostitute wrong—but truly wrong. He would have seen no problem with driving aimlessly all night, refusing to take me home until I told him something. The truth wouldn't have been an option, but lying to Riley wasn't really a great skill of mine. And then the longer I spent fabricating the lie, the more believable it would have to be, but it would probably never be good enough. No, it could never be good enough unless it could fool Riley and myself. And it's so hard to lie to yourself.
I pulled the collar of Riley's coat up around my face. I was thinking of blocking out the cold and hiding from strangers, but the whiff of Riley-smelling coat I inhaled drove those things from my mind. I closed my eyes, exhaled deeply, and walked faster.