Mae does not go to school on Wednesday, either.

After spending the night in Oak Farms, she is deposited in front of the little blue house where she lingers, waving, long after Shelby's convertible disappears toward Pearville High.

She senses the guest before she hears his voice, earnest and articulate, at the kitchen table. Courtney, sipping coffee across from him, looks up in surprise. “I thought you'd be in school.”

“Who's this?”

The reporter rises and shakes Mae's hand. “I'm Jack Whip from WCW Channel 6. It's wonderful to finally meet you.” (Courtney shields her face behind her coffee mug, so she must feel some remorse. As she should.) “Your mother and I were just talking about next steps.”

“Were there first steps?”

Overzealous Jack Whip, stunned, actually wipes his hands on his chinos. “I thought...”

“Fuck you both. Actually, fuck each other.” Mae doesn't care if the insult makes no sense. She cannot heed the presumptuous, chiseled face cocked beneath dark hair—a physical type that will repel her for the rest of her life—and has already locked the bathroom door, besides. She rocks back and forth on the fuzzy toilet seat cover, listening to Jack Whip gather his things, and she stays in the bathroom as long as she can, until Courtney's knocks rattle the door. Mae shouts back at the trembling barrier. “This isn't about you! You can't make this about you!”

“I'm doing all of this for you!” The sound of a palm slap against wood, then silence.

Mae imagines her mother defeated on the floor (a satisfying image) but upon opening the door Courtney leans against the opposite wall, eying her daughter warily. “Then why are you inviting reporters in without asking me first?”

“One reporter, I invited one reporter in, and I'm trying to be sensible here. Chances like this only come once in a lifetime. You don't scratch off a winning ticket and then throw it away.”

Too stunned to be angry, Mae's voice goes flat. “So this is what, about profit? Is it about money?”

“Maybe partly.” Courtney's head flops about in tandem with her hands; she has totally cracked. “But why not think about money? It's the sensible thing to think about! I'm trying my best here. I almost snapped and called your father until—”

“You talk to my father?” Mae has never met the man.

“I mean, I haven't, not for years, but I thought about it.” The backpedaling begins. “I mean, there's a reason I didn't, it's not a good choice, but I felt desperate.”

“I thought he didn't want to talk to us.”

“Oh he doesn't. But being a grown up is complicated, Mae. Sometimes there's no right answer, there's only the answer that makes you look less bad.” Courtney had inadvertently brought up the one subject that can silence her. “I won't talk to any more reporters, not until you tell me it's okay.” She politely closes the bathroom door.

Which leaves Mae staring at the shower curtain—pink, to coordinate with the toilet seat cover and rug—that conceals the mildew growing within. Because she borrowed last night's pajamas from Shelby, Mae slides off the same navy jumper she wore yesterday. Curtain open. Water on. Yet still she stands there, unable to take the plunge. Her father is out there, somewhere, a living person behind the child support checks.

Lifting one leg, Mae notices hairs that have grown long enough to be intriguing. Black spears rage from visible pores. She toys with the idea of never shaving again. Her reflection reminds her of some movie montage where, left to its own devices, the jungle overtakes an abandoned city. Inches of dark roots protrude from scalp, and even the blond portions of her hair look dull, lifeless, devoid of product.

If her father is alive, around, maybe one day she will meet him.

Too overwhelming. Think of something else, or don't think at all.

Mae throws herself under the running water to wash the possibility away. 


chapter thirty