I'm angry, but all I can think is how great of a place Sterne would be to bury a body. It's all sand and sun and dried-up riverbeds, cut through by an empty two-lane interstate here and there. Strangers passing through on their way to Tucson or Phoenix probably wouldn't even blink an eye if they saw some redneck local with more fingers than teeth bludgeoning a neighbor to death with a rusty pipe.
I hear the front door open, see Uncle Elliot's head poke out. "Bird-" he starts.
"Don't call me that," I say fiercely, and both of us are silent for a moment. I look away, out to the mountains across the desert and the sun lazily dipping down to meet them. "Just leave me alone, alright?"
My uncle sighs and retreats back into the house. I feel worse all alone in the silence, with nothing but the heat and the weight of the horrible things I screamed at him and Auntie Grace to keep me company. That hadn't been the first time Uncle Elliot and I have argued, but it was definitely one of the worst because I don't think either of us are very happy with what he's done. Poking at a rock with my bare toe, I wonder if I would be able to make it all the way to Andie's house before the sun sets and the temperature drops below freezing. Probably not, and definitely not without shoes. That leaves me two options: sitting outside or going inside to face the fire again. I let out a short, irritated breath between my lips and sit down on the front steps, pinned there by my pride.
How could they do this to me? To Mom?
I think of the time she came to visit, back when I was 8 or 9. It was the first time I'd seen her the year since she'd left me here with her brother, though there wasn't and still isn't a day I go where I don't think about her – where she is and what she's doing and why she hasn't really come back for me yet. This day, it was a Saturday morning and I'd been playing with Eliza in the front yard while my aunt and uncle sat on the rickety front porch, swatting at horseflies. Mom's car had rolled to a stop in the driveway, and the soccer ball my cousin and I had been kicking back and forth had rolled to a stop against my foot. I'd looked at my uncle, saw the rage on his face, then suddenly Mom was bursting out of her car and sweeping me into one of her famous Mom Hugs. I remember being surrounded by her warm, thin arms, and the smell that's so distinctly her – heavy lilac perfume and the slight smoky smell beneath it, from her nicotine addiction.
That moment ended far too soon, with Mom squeezing me tightly, saying, "My little Bird's grown so much," and pulling away as Uncle Elliot approached.
I remember none of the things they'd said to each other that day, but I do remember Mom sitting with us at the table that night, and how happy I'd been with Auntie Grace to my left, Mom to my right, and Uncle Elliot, Eliza, and Ivy across the table from me. Auntie Grace and Uncle Elliot had been pissed, of course, because they always were when Mom showed up without warning. For as long as I could remember, it'd always been awkward and uncomfortable for Mom when she came to dinner, with the glares and the harsh you can't have a beer, Claire's thrown in her direction, but she'd endured it for me.
The door opens and closes with a bang, and I glance over my shoulder to see Auntie Grace. She smiles weakly at me. "Mind if I join you?"
I shrug, grudgingly, but don't say anything. Better her than Uncle Elliot, I guess.
Auntie Grace eases herself down beside me, stretching her bare feet out onto the hot, concrete path leading down to the driveway. "You alright?"
I nod, gaze locked on the mountains in the distance. I've pulled my legs up to my chest, wrapping my arms around them and resting my chin on my knees. "I'm fine."
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Auntie Grace bounce her feet on the burning pavement for a few moments before pulling them back to rest on the warm wood of the front porch steps. She's silent for a moment, then says, "You know what your mom's done is bad, don't you? You know she could've really hurt you?"
Her questions make me angry because I know she's right, so I snap, "I came out here to get away from the argument. If you want to continue it, please leave."
She lets out a massive sigh, the biggest one I've ever heard, and shifts to lean against the rickety porch railing. "It's hot today, huh?"
I figure this doesn't even need a response, because it feels like we're sitting in an oven, with the dry heat and the hot sun beating down on my dark hair and making my scalp burn. And I can feel her looking at me, waiting, which makes me want to respond even less. When I stay silent, she says, "We just want what's best for you, and if what's best for you is what you don't like, then, I'm sorry, but it's just what's going to happen."
I don't speak.
Auntie Grace sighs again. "This doesn't change anything, really. You know that, right? You were already in our custody – physically, at least – so this just makes it so we don't need to find your mother's address every time your school needs a form signed or something."
I don't know how to say that things have changed, because Mom has signed the papers and gone to court and given me up. I know it had to be Auntie Grace and Uncle Elliot's fault; there's no way Mom would do it if they hadn't made her, somehow. There's no way she'd do what they asked her to do and up to Phoenix.
I remember the time Mom took me out to get ice cream for my 15th birthday, a few months ago. We'd gone to the place over in town called Cool Licks or something like that. I'd walked out of the front doors of the school with my friends to see Mom's pile-of-crap Mazda parked out front, and to her leaning against the passenger's side door with huge sunglasses and movie-star hair, looking effortlessly cool.
"That's your mom, isn't it?" Giana had asked, in awe.
"She must be here for your birthday," Andie had added.
I remember the swell of happiness I felt when I saw Mom standing there, waiting for me. I remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, she'd come out from El Paso for my birthday. It hadn't felt real at the time. I'd ditched my friends, then; it isn't something I'm proud of, considering we'd been planning to go get ice cream to celebrate, but it's something we all understand. Mom drove just the two of us the long way to the ice cream shop, on the highway with all the windows down and her foot to the floor, and when we'd gotten there she'd ordered us both chocolate milkshakes with whip cream and extra cherries on top. I'd dropped my cherries into the dirt by the tires of her car as discretely as possible; I was allergic.
We'd talked for a while about nothing and everything. Every now and then we'd lapse into easy silence. It was absolutely perfect.
Then she'd dropped me off at home and all hell broke loose.
Uncle Elliot and Auntie Grace had come outside the moment the car turned off, my aunt grabbing my arm and dragging me into the house while my uncle yelled what the fuck is wrong with you at Mom. I hadn't heard much of their conversation over my aunt, who was shouting about how I needed to pay more attention, how I needed to not get in the car with Mom when she smelled like alcohol, but I remember hearing Uncle Elliot yell, "I've gotta know whether you've been drinking before Missy even gets near you! You call me or Grace before you ever take her out again, you hear me?" and Mom respond with, "I'm not calling you every time I want to see her! She's my fucking daughter!" Before I was shoved into the house, sulking and seriously pissed, I heard Uncle Elliot snap, "Only to the government, and not for long."
At the time, I hadn't thought much about what Uncle Elliot had said; I'd figured it was something to piss her off, to get her to leave. Now that I do know what he meant, I want to kick myself for not connecting the dots sooner.
And I want to kick Uncle Elliot for doing this to her.
Now, I turn to look at my aunt. She's staring out at the sun, mouth twisted as she gnaws on the inside of her cheek. It's a bad habit she'd passed on to me. My eyes sting and I squeeze my fists until my nails dig into my palms, realizing I'm about to cry. Knowing this makes me feel worse because I don't want to be the kind of 15-year-old who cries. Very carefully, I ask, "Why didn't you tell me first, before you made her sign the papers?"
Auntie Grace turns to me, pityingly, and I feel a rush of anger. Before I can snap something I'll regret, she says, "We didn't make her sign anything, Missy. She agreed to."
I bite my tongue to keep from calling her every nasty name I want to, because I can't believe that Mom wouldn't have done this if they hadn't made her.
"She understands that she needs to get help," Auntie Grace continues. "She knows that it's better for everyone if you're completely in our custody, especially because she's going to be over in Phoenix for the next few months while she gets better. It'll be easier for us all this way."
Easier for her and Uncle Elliot, she means. Not for Mom and certainly not for me. Mom needs us around now more than ever; sending her away was just going to make things worse. I remember when Mom came to visit a few weeks ago. It'd felt like such a treat, because she'd never come so often in so little time, but now I know she'd come because she needed to sign the paperwork.
I'd been sitting at the kitchen table working half-heartedly on my Algebra homework when she knocked. Uncle Elliot had gotten the door and he hadn't looked pleased to see her, but he hadn't looked as angry as he would've been if he hadn't known she was coming, so I'd known she had called ahead for once. I didn't hear what they said, but I'd heard them whispering for a moment before Mom came over and sat at the chair across from me.
"How's life, Birdie?" she had asked.
We talked, but not for long enough, and at the time I'd been blind to it all because I'd been so, so happy to see my mother there, on a school night, to surprise me.
"Why don't you go finish your homework in your room, while your mom and I talk for a minute?" Uncle Elliot had said, and I remember feeling slightly put off by the way he'd said 'your mom.' Ever since I was little, both he and Auntie Grace had referred to the other as 'Auntie' and 'Uncle' and my mother had never been an exception; she'd always been 'Mom' or, when I was younger, 'Mommy.' Even so, I'd agreed and gone down the hall to my room on the condition that Mom would come and say bye to me before she left.
I'd been curious, though, so after dropping my binder and textbook into a pile on my bed, I'd crept back to try to listen to their conversation. I'd kept to the edges of the hallway, where the rug didn't reach and where the wood floor wouldn't creak when I slid my socked foot across it.
I could hear their mumbling voices almost immediately after I'd stepped out of my bedroom, but I couldn't make out their conversation. Carefully, I had slipped back down the hallway to linger by the door to the kitchen, hovering just outside the small rectangle of light that snuck in through the open door.
"- can't stand the thought of her being mad at me," Mom had whispered, voice breaking.
That had startled me, that crack in her voice. I don't get to see Mom often, but whenever I do, she's pretty much the strongest person in the world. She laughs at Uncle Elliot as if he isn't scary when he's angry, she laughs with me as if I don't remind her of my dad, and she's pretty much unstoppable. So, hearing the obvious fear in her voice had been more than a little discomforting.
"Oh, don't worry," Uncle Elliot had reassured her, though there was a bit of bitterness laced into his words. That, at least, hadn't been anything new. "I don't think that'll ever be a problem. There's no one in the world she looks up to more than you."
"I know that. She doesn't see how horrible I really am." Mom's voice had been so quiet I'd barely heard it.
"You're not horrible," Uncle Elliot had argued, sounding defeated.
Mom was silent for a moment before she finally spoke again, even softer than before. "But I could've hurt her, driving like that. What if that happens again? What if next time I'm not so lucky?"
"It won't happen again." Uncle Elliot had said firmly, then added pleadingly, "Please, Claire, sign the papers and go to rehab-"
I'd turned around and slid back to my room as fast as I could, heart pounding and blood roaring in my ears. Even then, curious as I'd been, I knew that that conversation was something I wasn't meant to hear. It'd been that moment when I realized Mom is a human, too, not someone I can rely on like I want to, and that had hurt more than anything. I wanted to help her, to be there for her like she hadn't been for me, but I didn't know how. And now it's too late, because she'd gotten in that car with Uncle Elliot and gone out to Phoenix a few days ago.
"Missy." It's Uncle Elliot who says my name, and it's slightly jarring because I don't remember the last time he called me Missy and not Birdie. I spin around, narrowing my eyes at him.
"What?" I snap, falling back on the anger I know so well.
Uncle Elliot's cracked the door just barely, as if giving himself the opportunity to run back inside should I start yelling again. When he sees that I'm not going to, he cautiously eases himself out the door entirely and leans against the rotting shingles of the house. He crosses his arms across his chest and looks at me over the tops of his rimless glasses. After a moment of silence where Auntie Grace and I stare at him, he says, "She didn't want to hurt you again."
"Mom hasn't ever hurt me," I say hotly, but even as I'm thinking the words I know that, while they're technically true, Mom has put me in many situations where I hadn't been safe. Where I could've been hurt. I look away from them both, up at the cloudless, darkening blue of the sky, and open my eyes wide to keep the tears from spilling over. Without hesitation, I add, "You did."
"Hey now," Auntie Grace says, quickly. "You're old enough to know that we're not trying to hurt you. We're trying to get her the help she needs."
"I can help her," I say desperately. "Or, I could've, if you didn't take her away from me."
"We didn't take anyone away from you," Uncle Elliot says. "She's still more than welcome to visit as much as she has, once she finishes the program, but that is exactly why we did what we did."
"You're just a kid," Auntie Grace adds, gently. "It's not your job to help her, at least not like that."
"You just said I'm old enough to understand!" I blurt, because really, what did she mean by all of this? One moment she's saying I should understand that Mom needs help, the next she's saying I'm not supposed to be there for her. "What do you want me to do, then?"
Uncle Elliot sighs through his nose, though I can tell he isn't annoyed at me. "We want you to understand that this is hard on all of us, not just you. She's your mother, but she's also my little sister, and it hurts me, too, knowing there isn't anything I can do for her."
"I know that!"
"But," Auntie Grace adds firmly, as if I hadn't spoken. "We've given her too many chances. We're not going to let her put you at risk again."
"If I just told her to stop drinking, she'd stop!" As I say this, I realize how wrong I am. I start to cry.
Auntie Grace freezes for a moment before throwing herself forward and wrapping her arms around me. "Oh, honey," she whispers.
I finally let myself think of the unfairness of it all. I don't like to admit that I'm still a kid, but I am, and it's not fair that a kid should have to check to make sure her mother isn't drunk before she gets into the car with her. It's not fair for a kid to feel like it's her responsibility to take care of her own mother. It's just not fair.