THE FAMILIARS (a YA fantasy novel--chpt. by chpt.)
JUDITH POST/Judi Lynn
Zoey walked through the door and tossed her school books on the nearest chair. She didn't have to think about them for a week. Spring break. No homework. No early mornings. She could sleep in. It was a good thing too. She was exhausted. It was after four in the morning before she got her mom into bed last night. Mom had come home from her two to ten shift, agitated, and headed straight for the beer. A bad sign. Something had set her off at the restaurant.
It had been a long day at school before the last bell rang. The guidance counselor had called Zoey into her office. "You're smart, a top student. After spring break, there are only two more months before you graduate. And then what?" Good question. Zoey had applied at three colleges, and all three accepted her, but if she didn't get more financial aid, she'd soon be waitressing, just like her mom. Not for forever, though. Just summers and part-time to earn enough to make it at the regional campus.
Zoey started toward the kitchen when she heard someone in her bedroom. Mom must be home. That meant she'd skipped work or got fired. Neither was good. But when Mom started down the hallway, Zoey saw that things were even worse. Mom had an old, battered suitcase in her hand and tossed it on top of the coffee table.
Oh, no. Not again. Zoey balled her fingers into fists. Not now.
Her mother disappeared back into Zoey's room and returned, carrying clumps of clothes. "You've never worn this sweater," she complained. "I paid good money for it. Why don't you ever wear it?"
A distraction. Her mom was trying to avoid the real issue. Zoey looked at the shapeless garment. "It's five sizes too big."
"Doesn't matter. It's wool. It would keep you warm."
"Would you wear it?" Zoey didn't care about the sweater. She cared about the suitcase that was filling fast with her things. "Why are you packing this time?"
"What do you think?"
"You lost your job? We got evicted?" As usual, her mother had caught her off guard. That was one of her tricks—the element of surprise. No, make that shock. There was no way to see what was coming. Her mother didn't work under the same constraints as most adults. When the going got tough, Mom ran. Her mother's next words threw Zoey totally off balance.
"I've done my duty. I've raised you. Not that you'd give me any credit." Here it came. The shifting of blame. Zoey was an ungrateful daughter. She didn't love and appreciate her enough. But again, her mother veered from their ritual. "You and your weirdness are too much for me. I can't handle it any more."
Handle her? Was she kidding? Zoey was the one who took care of her mother, not the other way around.
"I have a shot for happiness. I'm taking it."
Her mother had seemed happier lately. Until last night, she didn't complain about waiting tables at the bar. She didn't make excuses to go in late or skip a night.
Her mom tipped the drawer she was holding and dumped Zoey's underwear into the open case. Then she headed down the hallway for the last of her clothes.
Zoey looked at her meager belongings—three pairs of jeans, four tops, a week's worth of panties. She was wearing her favorite outfit—black Levis and a black, long- sleeved tee. They suited her shoulder-length, dark hair and large, hazel eyes, her pale complexion. Not that it mattered how she looked. No one ever came near her. Especially boys, which was good. Boys were nothing but trouble. She'd watched the men her mother brought home. Idiots. All of them.
Her mother clomped back. This time, she threw Zoey's sketch books and journals on top of the disheveled clothes. One of the books fell open, revealing a drawing of a basil plant. Zoey had written guardian spirit beneath her sketch. Her mom shut the book, shaking her head. "Most people cook with that stuff, you know."
"I cook." If she didn't, she'd starve. Mom wasn't exactly little Miss Homemaker.
"Don't start." Her mom's voice wavered. "Mace will be here in a few minutes. You got anything else you want, you'd better go get it."
"Mace?" This was the first time Zoey heard the name.
Her mom had the grace to look uncomfortable. "A guy who hangs out at the bar. He's different. We talk. He's asked me to marry him."
So that was the big drama last night, the reason her mom was all worked up. Zoey couldn't hide her surprise. Who would take on her mom? Did the guy have a fix-it complex or something? "Do I get a vote in this? Where are we going? Are we moving in with him?"
"We aren't going anywhere."
What did that mean? Zoey glanced down the hallway to her mother's open bedroom door. Her things were tossed on the unmade bed. She was packing too.
"You'd ruin everything," her mom said. "Mace is a trucker. We're hitting the road, going to drive together. No place for a kid. Now get moving. If your things aren't out here when Mace knocks on the door, they go in the trash."
Fear congealed in the pit of Zoey's stomach. "So you're ditching me? Walking away? What kind of mother are you?"
Her mom turned toward the kitchen, avoiding an answer.
"Where are you sending me?"
"You'll know soon enough." More avoidance. Her mom's favorite tactic.
Zoey planted her feet, ready to argue, but she knew it wouldn't make a difference. When her mother felt guilty or scared, she dodged an issue as long as she could. She'd wait till the last minute, hoping it would just go away. If that didn't work, she'd start packing. Heat flared through Zoey's veins. Her mom was never dependable, but she could put up with that. She was the only family Zoey had. If she had a dad, she had no idea who he was. And obviously, he felt the same. But after all the crap Mom had put her through, the woman was sending her away?
Her mother's shoulders stiffened. She wouldn't meet Zoey's eyes. "You'd better get a move on."
Zoey could feel the energy build inside her. She took deep breaths to calm herself. The energy scared her. She was never sure what it would do or if she could control it. She wasn't even sure where it came from. Was it something bad? Evil?
"What are you standing there for?" Her mother turned her back on her and began rummaging in the refrigerator. "Get to it!" False bravado. Zoey knew that tone. She'd heard it whenever her mom was short on rent money or couldn't pay the bills.
Zoey couldn't believe it. They were moving. Again. Just a few months before she'd finish high school. "The local college has accepted me. I can work and get my degree. If we stay…"
"What good does it do to study literature and take art classes? It might be different if you were learning something that mattered."
Zoey pressed her lips together. Her mother would never understand. Books and art seemed boring to her. "Am I going somewhere close?" If her mom wasn't sending her too far away, maybe she could find someone to room with and still attend college.
"You've got a long drive ahead of you. Mace will be here soon. Get your things."
Where was her mom sending her? As far Zoey knew, her mom didn't have any friends. Neither did she. They never stayed anywhere long enough to make any. So who did her mom talk into taking her? The circus?
"You don't have time to stand there," her mom warned. "I told Mace to pick you up after school."
Zoey stomped to her closet and yanked the door open. Her life—everything she'd planned—was falling apart. She lifted her pottery wheel off the closet floor. She'd worked at a pizza parlor one whole summer to buy it. Best job she ever had. Discount pizzas. Supper every night. She'd gained five pounds in three months. Heaven. And then they moved. She'd have gotten the wheel sooner, but half of whatever she made went to her mother, supposedly to help with the rent, until they got evicted. She sighed. Mom was never good with money.
Zoey carried the wheel to the living room and put it on the couch. As she started back down the hallway, her mom yelled after her. "Don't even think about taking those plants!"
Zoey looked at the dozens of terra cotta pots that lined the makeshift shelves she'd attached to her window. She'd never left an apartment without her herbs and plants. She wasn't going to now. "I have to have them."
"Not where you're going. Nothing grows there."
What did that mean? Her plants had thrived in any apartment they'd lived in, whether they sat in a sunny window or under a gloomy fire escape. "Mom…."
Her mother cut her off again. "I said no."
It was bad enough that they were moving, worse yet that her mom was ditching her, but Zoey had to have her plants. She wouldn't feel safe without them. Her hand flew to the fabric pouch that dangled on a leather thong around her neck. "If they stay, I stay."
"Well, that changes everything." Her mom's voice had an edge to it. Zoey had pushed her too far. She was beginning to panic. Her mother blew through the door, threw the window open, and pushed on the shelving. The clay pots tumbled out the screenless window and smashed on the pavement below. "There." She turned to Zoey, hands on hips. "You won't need them. Believe me. Now get ready."
Zoey's jaw dropped in surprise. How could she? The energy rose again. She wished…
Her mother gave a strangled gasp and put both hands to her throat, fighting for air. Her eyes widened as she stared at Zoey.
"I hate you," Zoey said. Her mother's face became mottled. Tears streaked her cheeks. How long would it take for her to faint? How much longer before she died? Her mother stretched out a hand and dug her fingernails into Zoey's shoulder. Her face twisted with fear. Only then did Zoey shake herself out of her temper.
What was she doing? What was wrong with her? Maybe her mother was right, and she was too weird to keep. The energy did bad things. She had to control it. She took deep breaths and forced it out of her. Her mother gulped for air.
"How dare you?" Her mom's voice shook with rage. "After all I've done for you!"
"Yeah, right!" Zoey's temper flared, but this time, she kept it under control. "How many times have I put you to bed? Poured coffee down you and cleaned up after you when you've had too much to drink?" Tears threatened. Zoey willed them away. Her entire body trembled. Her legs felt weak.
They stood there, glaring at each other, until her mother turned on her heel and headed back toward the kitchen. "You have fifteen minutes before Mace gets here."
Zoey's thoughts reeled. What should she do? She couldn't stay here. She had no friends, no money. She had to leave. She opened the drawer of her nightstand. She wrapped half a dozen candles in a white cloth, then carried them to the kitchen. Her mother slid them into a plastic bag. "I want answers," Zoey told her. "I deserve them. Where am I going?"
"Don't give me that look."
"Where am I going?" Zoey repeated. She had no intention of backing down, and her mom could tell.
Zoey knew what she was referring to. Whatever had happened to Mom in that town had never gone away. Her mother was a walking, festering wound that never healed.
"What will I do there?"
"My aunt said she'd take you in. I told her you wouldn't stay long. You graduate in June."
"Where will you be?"
"I'm leaving this pit. The road will be home."
Zoey gave a quick nod, too upset to say more. She fought for control. No more surges of energy. It might feel good now, but she'd regret it later. Her mom was jumping for the golden hoop, hoping to find some kind of happiness. And maybe it would work. Maybe if wheels kept turning under her, she could outrun her demons. "Are you going to call me sometime?" Her mom might be nuts, but she was her mother.
A truck pulled into the apartment complex and her mom glanced out the window. "Get moving. He's here." She pushed an empty box toward Zoey. "Your books. You forgot your books."
Zoey went to her mother's bedroom and began to fill the cardboard box. Jane Austen. The Bronte sisters. Practical Magic, along with other favorites. She heard a man's voice in the living room and took a deep breath. What kind of guy would hook up with her mom? She figured she had a few minutes before they called for her. She took the candle on her mom's nightstand and lit it. Then she waved her hand over the flame to look into the smoke. She whispered, "Candle flame, burn and gutter; Show the face of another, Glow and flicker, clear and true, Bring my aunt into view."
The face she conjured was round and friendly, sun dappled with freckles. It was a kind face. Zoey felt herself relax a little.
"What's keeping you?" her mother called. Zoey blew out the candle, picked up the box of books, and headed to the living room.
"That looks heavy." Mace filled the apartment's doorway, big and burly. Gray streaked his hair and beard. His eyes looked intelligent and patient. Maybe he'd be good for her mother.
"You're dawdling again!" Her mom's posture was so stiff, she looked brittle. Zoey realized this was hard for her too. Her mother wanted to get it over with.
"Will you come to visit me?" Zoey asked.
"Probably not. You're starting a new life. So am I." Her mom looked away.
Zoey pulled on a long, black sweater and stepped into well worn gym shoes.
"Is this it?" Mace asked her mother. "This is all she's got?"
"It's enough." Her mom motioned to the one suitcase and the pottery wheel. She went to the kitchen and handed Zoey a brown bag with two sandwiches inside.
"You're not coming?" Zoey asked.
"I'll be back as soon as I can." Mace stacked the wheel on top of the box of books. "Be ready to put this hole behind you." He motioned for Zoey to heft her suitcase off the coffee table. "Come on, girl. We've got a drive ahead of us."
It felt strange leaving her mom. Zoey had pictured graduation and freedom many times, taking off on her own, starting a new life. But this felt so abrupt, so final. She went to hug her mom, but she waved her away.
Tear glittered in her mom's eyes. Her face puckered. "Just go."
Zoey followed Mace to his truck. Climbing into the cab was more of a chore than she'd thought. It sat high off the road. When Mace started the engine, gears ground and they pulled away. Zoey glanced back at the apartment complex. Was this really the last time she'd ever see her mother?
Mace precluded conversation by turning the radio on at a high volume. Just as well. Everything had happened so fast, Zoey didn't know what to think, what to say.
For the first two or three towns, ideas jumbled in her head and couldn't seem to stick. She couldn't focus. Then the gloom hit her. She'd have to start at a new school, a new town, a new life and try to endure for two months. It had been hard enough at her old school. She was different. Always had been. But at least, everyone had gotten used to her. They left her alone. She wouldn't be as lucky as the new girl in town. The teasing would start again. The jibes and insults.
She looked out the window at the passing scenery. Trees were beginning to bud. Spring was trying to take hold. She looked at her reflection in the window. Forlorn. Then she straightened her shoulders. She'd never let life beat her down, and there was no reason to start now. A person could endure anything for a while. Two months would go fast.