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CHAPTER ONE

So it had come to this.

Each labored breath pulled the oxygen mask tighter against her pallid skin, released only as we waited for the next gasp. They were coming further apart, accompanied by a taxing gurgle in her lungs. Mom’s hospice nurse called it the death rattle. It broke my heart to see her without peace in these final moments. She’d been fighting her whole life—fighting her upbringing, fighting her family, fighting her body, and now fighting her own exit from this world.

Her hands were soft and tiny, and her skin felt paper-thin under my fingers. I squeezed gently. “We’re here, Mom. We’re here and we love you.”

Sophie let out a muffled sob and brushed the back of her hand across her leaky nose. “I love you, Mommy.”

I drew her tiny body in with my free arm and kissed the top of her head. Six was too young to become an orphan.

Judging by his bloodshot eyes and trembling lips, Logan was wrestling to keep himself together. Mostly silent, he mumbled occasionally to himself or perhaps to Mom. Her struggle for another gulp of air broke him. His head fell forward over her hand, and he kissed it, leaving a trail of tears that rolled off her slender wrist. Fourteen was also too young to become an orphan, though I supposed there was no right age to be left behind.

“It’s ok, Mom. We’ll be okay. You can let go now.” My words came out barely above a whisper, but they reverberated heavily against the stillness of our living room. Only the ticking of the old grandfather clock mingled with our whimpers.

We all desperately loved our mother, but no matter how much we wanted to help her, we couldn’t save her. This woman who gave all three of us life, who nurtured and cared for us, who did the best she could with what little she had, she now lay with her legacy surrounding her. She had ushered us into this world, and now we all hovered over her as she was ushered out.

I watched her face, waiting for the next breath.

It didn’t come.

My own breath became jammed tightly in my throat. I felt torn between my desire to have her with me for one more moment and my longing for her to finally be set free. The ticking of the antique clock served as the only reminder of time. It snapped away the seconds as we floated in limbo. Finally, when I was certain Mom had taken her last gasp, I allowed myself to release my breath. “She’s gone.”

“Mommy!” Sophie wailed, throwing her slight body over Mom’s legs. “Mommy!”

I stood up and removed the oxygen mask from her face, then leaned forward and brushed my cheek against hers, kissing the tip of her earlobe and inhaling the scent of Yardley English Lavender against her skin for the last time. “Bye, Mom.”

Logan hefted Sophie to his hip, struggling to support her limp, sobbing body in his own weak and shaking arms. “Are you going to go and tell Chuck?”

I nodded reluctantly, not wanting to break away from the three people I loved most to tell Mom’s boyfriend she had gone. With a sigh I opened the front door, knowing exactly where to find him. An angry weight of Las Vegas’ heat punched against the whirl of air conditioning even in the spring. My hands shot to my forehead, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun. Chuck’s bulky form slumped to one side on a wooden park bench. He wasn’t the only drunk in Vegas—hell, he probably wasn’t the only drunk on the first floor—but it pissed me off that he didn’t even try to conceal it. Thankfully it was too hot for the kids in the complex to play anywhere but in the pool.

“Chuck.” I didn’t have the energy to shout, proven by my weak attempt.

My flip-flops clacked against the hot pavement as I crossed the parking lot to where Chuck had passed out at the far end of the park. A swing gently glided back and forth as I passed, but without a breeze, I was baffled as to how. Beads of sweat were scattered across Chuck’s face, connected by a network of red, broken capillaries that thread under his sunburned skin.

I kicked his leg. “Chuck!”

He stirred slightly, mumbled, then resettled his cheek back on the seat of the bench.

I didn’t want to touch him, so I kicked his leg a little harder than I probably should have. “Chuck!”

This time he swung his arms in front him, jolting into an upright position. The panels from the bench left an imprint on the side of his face. He squinted and stared, disoriented, until I came into focus. “What?” he whined.

He was so pitiful that I actually felt sorry for him. “Mom passed,” I answered gently. “Just a minute ago. I’m sorry you didn’t get to say goodbye.”

Chuck lifted the tattered baseball cap from his head and pushed a mob of sweaty hair back under it. His face pinched in confusion. “Just now?”

“Just now.”

He exhaled dejectedly. “Geez, May, I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m going to call Alice and let her know. I don’t have a clue what happens next … except that they come and get her.” I swallowed to ease the quiver in my voice. “Do you want to come back in and see her?”

Chuck leaned forward, pressing his elbows into his knees. “I don’t know, May.” He lifted his eyes to meet mine. They swam with embarrassment. “I don’t think I want to see her like that.”

Mom had been battling breast cancer for two years, and Chuck had been her boyfriend for four. I’m not sure what he meant by like that. When I left her bedside, she looked not so different from how she’d looked for the past few days. She did have a burst of energy two days ago, but it lasted only a couple of glorious hours. After that, her eyes didn’t open again.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

His eyes darted past me toward the partially opened door of the condo. He began to stand but hesitated, then dropped back onto the bench. “I’m sure, May. I… I just can’t.”

Too conquered by my own grief, I didn’t bother to try to understand where he was coming from. We all mourn differently; who knows, maybe he was just trying to hang onto the Grace he’d fallen in love with. Though, if what Chuck and Mom shared were actually romantic love, I felt grateful for not having been subjected to it myself.

“I’ll call you after I talk to Alice.”

I took a step back as Chuck tried once more to pick himself up from the bench. Once successfully standing on two unsteady legs, he began to shuffle toward his car.

“If you want to wait a little while, I can give you a ride, Chuck.” He might have been a well-functioning alcoholic, able to complete all the odd jobs he took up, but in his condition now, he didn’t belong behind the wheel.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to drive. I’m just going to sleep with the air on.”

I watched him stagger halfway before I went back in to Logan and Sophie. They were still cradled in each other’s arms. My phone chirped from its spot on the small breakfast table, its smooth glass surface heavily chipped from Sophie’s helmet after she raced into it on roller skates.

 

I will be there in five minutes. The last appointment was nearby.

 

It was Alice, Mom’s hospice nurse. She’d been by daily, sometimes twice, to do everything from changing sheets and sponge-bathing to giving Mom doses of morphine when she finally admitted she needed it. Pain management and comfort were Alice’s priorities but not Mom’s. The drugs made her foggy and, even though she wouldn’t say so, I think they scared her. She knew she only had a short time left and wanted to be alert for every second of it.

There was no need to reply to Alice. She’d know soon enough.

I wrapped my arms around my brother and sister, wanting to hold onto them so tightly that I might pull them safely into my own body. Together we began to sob again, knowing that our lives would never be the same. Mom had been sick for so long, but she always remained upbeat and optimistic, even when advised her care would be transitioning to hospice. I understood what that meant in theory, but since nothing changed in Mom’s attitude or demeanor, it was all pushed to the back of my mind. Only during the last week, the last forty-eight hours, did the reality of imminent loss hit me like a truck. She was sick but she was a fighter, a fighter who always won. How could she lose this battle? How could it all be over now?

Logan, Sophie, and I still sat huddled together in tears when Alice arrived. We remained that way when the white sheet was placed over Mom’s body and even when she was wheeled out to the mortuary van. Alice whispered something about a social worker visiting in the morning, but I could barely hear her over the pounding in my ears. I could scarcely discern the screaming in my head from Sophie’s intermittent whelps. Or were they mine? We clung to each other through the night, fearful of what it might mean to let go, terrified of losing more of ourselves, untrusting of any movement that might separate us further. Our mother—our connective tissue to all we knew and loved—had been ripped away.

It was just us now.

CHAPTER TWO

Bacon spattered and snapped in the pan, its long streaks curling into themselves from a silky pool of its own fat. A salty, robust aroma permeated the small condo, and I hoped it would lull Logan and Sophie awake the way it always had when Mom cooked breakfast. I stared at the coffee maker, its timer flashing a warning that it was low on water. Out of habit, I refilled the chamber and dropped two heaping scoops of ground beans into the filter. It clicked on by itself, and soon the smell of fresh brew tangled with the headiness of the bacon. The coffee would only be dumped down the sink later. Nobody could stand its bitterness—even with heavy cream and four tablespoons of sugar, just like Mom used to take it. I was merely going through the motions.

I grabbed a diet cherry cola from the refrigerator and pressed the cold can against my temples. A headache was coming on, but anything cool usually alleviated its onset temporarily.

“Is it morning or daytime?” Sophie’s squeaky voice pulled me from a trance. She stood in the same crinkled dress from yesterday, her chestnut-brown hair matted into a clump under a ponytail that was clinging to an elastic band with all its might. Her light-green eyes and tawny hair definitely favored the father she’d never known.

“It’s morning, munchkin. Kind of early.” I cracked open the cherry coke and threw back a gulp with two aspirin.

Sophie climbed up onto her chair at the table and watched.

I turned the bacon, trying not to get my hand splattered by rogue shots of hot grease. “Do you want some crunchy eggs?”

She shrugged. “Not really hungry.”

Neither was I, but the last time any of us had eaten was lunch the day before, and that was only a mug of tomato soup and buttered toast. “Let’s try to fill our bellies with something together, OK?”

Logan stirred on the couch, flipping to his left side and pulling a throw cushion over his face.

“Logan! Get up!” Sophie shouted with an inexplicable bolt of energy, then she deflated almost as soon as the words left her plump little lips, slumping back into her chair.

The teenage boy slowly pulled himself into a sitting position and ran his fingers through a mop of russet hair that was many weeks overdue for a cut. He sniffed. “Is that real bacon?”

Sophie scrunched her nose. “Isn’t all bacon real?” Mom had fed her turkey bacon for so long she didn’t know what she was missing.

“It’s real bacon. I dug it out from pits of the freezer.”

Logan came up behind me, hovering over my shoulder. When I elbowed him playfully in the gut, he stepped back and flicked my ponytail with a long finger. “Emergency stash?”

“It felt like an emergency,” I mumbled, scooping up the crunchy meat and laying it neatly on a napkin-covered plate. The eggs sizzled when I released them from their brown shells into the remaining bacon grease. “Can you take over here, Logan?”

He grabbed the spatula and smiled weakly. “Will work for bacon.”

“Thanks, Bub.” I’d been a de facto caregiver to Mom and both kids for weeks, but Logan had really stepped up to the plate, helping where he could. Between school, homework, and smaller tasks at home, he was the hardest working fourteen-year-old I’d ever known. “I’m going to call and see how Chuck is doing.”

It went straight to voice mail. Well, not exactly voice mail. He hadn’t set the damn thing up in the four years we’d been graced by his presence, so instead I got a message from his service provider that he wasn’t available. Either that or he hadn’t paid the bill again.

Sophie asked, “Is Uncle Chuck coming over?”

“He’s not our uncle,” Logan tossed over his shoulder. “He was just Mom’s loser boyfriend.”

Sophie’s lips began to quiver.

I rushed to her, reaching out in time for her to collapse into my open arms. I shot Logan a warning glance, and he turned his head back sheepishly. There was no need for Sophie to feel like there’d be more loss than she was already reeling from, however inconsequential Chuck’s presence had been in our lives. At six years old everyone seems important.

“Uncle Chuck lost Mommy too,” I whispered into her tiny ear, “and he’s going to be sad, and maybe want to be alone for a while. But the three of us, we can look after each other.”

She accepted the excuse without a hint of resistance, or sorrow, sitting back into the chair on her own. “But who’s gonna look after Nana?”

Logan had the sense not to say anything this time.

I checked the neon green numbers on the microwave and counted off the hours on my fingers, my mind too fatigued to calculate unassisted. It was after midnight in Edinburgh, but I knew I had to make that phone call. Even if we had almost no relationship with her, the woman was still our grandmother. I just didn’t know how to tell her that her daughter had died. “I’ll ring her up right now and find out. Would you like to talk to her?”

Sophie swayed slightly and then sat back. “Not today.”

“OK, baby.” I grabbed my cell phone again. “I’m calling Nana, Logan.”

He didn’t reply. Either he wasn’t listening or, more likely, he didn’t care.

After closing the door to Mom’s bedroom, I pushed my back against it and slid down until I was crouching on the floor, pressing my head into my hands. My eyes burned from a night full of tears and the lingering of days-old incense in Mom’s room. I was so damn tired I wanted to cry, but my exhausted body wouldn’t give me that respite again. “Where are you?” I asked, adding a silent prayer for a sign. “Where are you, Mom?”

The only answer I received was from the hum of the AC as it clicked on, the air pushing the ruffles around Mom’s enormous four-poster bed in a wave. She’d shared the room with Sophie, who’d slept in the same bed with her since she’d been born. I took a deep breath and looked at the phone, scrolling through to the N’s.

Here goes nothin’.

The subdued, prolonged purr of a UK ring crooned in my ear. I wish I could’ve texted first to let her know I was calling, but Nana didn’t own a cell phone—or a mobile, as she called it.

“Hello?” she answered, confused by the midnight rousing.

“Nana… It’s me,” I shouted. “It’s May.”

There was a pause and a sharp intake of air. “Och aye.” Her lowlander brogue was never easy for me to follow, but this was crystal clear.

She knows.

“I’m sorry, Nana.” My voice trembled, and the rush of tears came. “I’m so sorry.”

“Dinnae cry, sweet bairn.” Her calm tone soothed my broken spirit. “A love ye,” she cooed delicately as I sobbed down the line, allowing me to grieve.

I barely knew her, and despite the fractured relationship she’d had with Mom, I felt the warmth of what would have been an embrace through the phone. I didn’t know how long I cried. Probably only a minute or two, but it might as well have been an eternity. “I already miss her so much.”

“A unnerstaun.” Of course she understood. She’d lost her mother once too—and now her only child. “A want ye to come here, all of ye. Come to Nana and I’ll look after ye.”

It was a tempting offer. In the face of such grave loss, it felt important to mend fences. After all this time, Mom would have wanted it. They hadn’t spoken for years, but Mom didn’t let that interfere when Nana called to talk to us. Still, the number of those calls I could count on one hand.

But now wasn’t the time to go to Scotland. “We can’t come for a visit now, Nana, but we’d all love for you to come here.”

She explained that she was too old to travel such a great distance, that her offer wasn’t for a short visit but to live there with her.

That was impossible. I shook my head, forgetting she couldn’t see me. Scotland charged through our blood, but Las Vegas was our home. Mom’s home. She had worked countless long nights, serving cocktails and saving up to buy us our own little piece of this city. We couldn’t walk away from it now. In any event, there was so much to sort out here.

It was too late for Nana to put up much of a fight for us to come, so she ended the call with, “Bye for noo.”

I brushed away what was left of my tears and joined Logan and Sophie for breakfast. I had to put aside my feelings for the moment. Perhaps I couldn’t hide my distress, but I could ensure the kids believed I wasn’t too overwhelmed to help them through this—even though my own loss seemed insurmountable. Completely drained, I hoped I would feel stronger once I’d had some rest.

They were my sole responsibility now. They needed me. I couldn’t fail them.

“Logan ate most of the bacon.” Sophie’s mouth turned down into a pout.

I sat down between them at the table. “You can have mine.”

She snatched up the last three crispy strips, making room for them on her plate by plopping a slice of burnt, buttered toast onto mine.

When I took a bite, it crumbled on my tongue, and the metallic taste lingered as I swallowed hard. “There’s a social worker coming today.”

Logan took his plate to the sink. “Why?”

“What’s a social worker?” Sophie asked.

“A social worker is someone who makes sure everything is OK when kids have tough things happen. Alice arranged it yesterday. It sounded pretty standard.”

“We had a tough thing happen,” Sophie replied with a full mouth.

“Yes, we did.” I leaned in and nuzzled my nose against her soft cheek. “But that doesn’t mean you can talk with your mouth full.”

The giggle that erupted from her was the first I’d heard in the house for God knew how long. She was so innocent, so sweet. I looked to Logan, who smiled to himself as he ran the tap to rinse his dish. My heavy heart lifted ever so slightly. This single, small momentary lapse into some form of contentment—however fleeting it might be—gave me hope that the three of us might actually get through this. We’d make it as long as we stuck together, continued to love each other, and made sure that, even in our darkest moments, we were still able to laugh.

CHAPTER THREE

“Hello, my name is Kelly Branson. I’m here from Nevada Social Services for Miss MacLennan.”

She was overdressed for the desert heat. In a teal pantsuit and pearls, she fanned her face with a manila envelope. I was briefly reminded of my menacing old fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Rainy, whose ominous black wardrobe and overcast scowls suited her name perfectly. At least the Kelly Branson version came in Technicolor.

“Miss Grace MacLennan was my mother, but she passed away last night.” The words bruised my mouth and left me numb. “I’m her oldest child, May.”

“Yes, yes, Miss May MacLennan.” With a knotted middle finger, the social worker pushed a pair of wiry round glasses up the bridge of her nose. “I’m here to see you, dear.”

Of course she was. I was now to be known as the eldest Miss MacLennan, carrying on the surname Mom had given us over the objections of our philandering father. Everything landed squarely on my shoulders from here on out.

I pulled the door open and lifted my arm toward the living room. Thankfully it had been kept clean with Alice picking up and wiping down around Mom’s hospital-style bed on her daily visits. I couldn’t have a social worker walk into a disaster area. “Please come in, Ms. Branson.”

She breezed past into the comfort of the air conditioning, trailing a scent of vanilla musk behind her. “Feel free to call me Kelly. We’re going to be spending a great deal of time together over the coming weeks.”

I didn’t like the sound of that one bit. “Why is that, Ms—Kelly?” The question came out guarded though not openly hostile.

“Have a seat, dear.”

Leery, I moved to the couch, settling down on the worn taupe fabric.

My guest, making herself too perfectly at home, sat on its neighboring love seat. She dropped a bulky handbag down on the carpet and pulled out a stack of folders. Her eyes softened. “First of all, May, I’d like to extend my deepest condolences to you and your family.”

I nodded, unable to formulate a response. Inexperienced in accepting condolences, such contrived compassion from a government employee reached a whole new level of trite.

Her eyes remained on me. “Are you alright, May? Is there anything you need?”

I need my mother. I need my space. I need you to leave. “No. I’m alright.”

She continued to stare, calculating whether or not I was merely being polite, then sighed. “I know this is all very difficult, but my job is to help you and your siblings through it.” Her voice rang sincere, but the air of authority in her rigid posture and robotic movements made me uneasy. She flipped open the top folder and clicked the head of a pen. “Are Logan and Sophie here?”

I motioned my head toward the bedrooms, knowing exactly which one they were in. “They’re taking a nap. It was a long night.”

Kelly’s forehead crinkled, and she stretched her hand forward to clutch mine. “No doubt it was, dear.” She squeezed firmly and then returned to the open file.

I ran my fingers over where her hand had touched, the burn of its superficial nature lingering.

Her words were sympathetic, but her tone gave away her suspicions. She didn’t think I could take care of the kids. “I’ll need to talk to each of them when we’re done here but not right now.” She thumbed through the folder until finding the page she wanted. “I have some things to go over first, and some questions for you, May. Is that alright?” Without waiting for an answer, she scribbled on the crisp white paper. “Your full name is May Victoria MacLennan?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

“Kelly. Please, call me Kelly.” She ticked a box. “And you are eighteen years old?”

“Nineteen. My birthday was two weeks ago.”

Kelly smiled tightly but didn’t look up. “Oh yes, it was, wasn’t it. Happy birthday.”

I shifted uncomfortably. What a stupid thing to say. Thank you. When she glanced up, I feared I’d said that out loud, but her unruffled poise assured me otherwise.

“Do you work or go to school?”

“I’ve been home looking after Mom and the kids. I had planned on going to UNLV, but deferred my enrollment until next term.” Thankfully, the university was wonderfully understanding of my situation, and even the scholarship offer was being held for me—pending my continued ability to soar over bars thirteen feet from the ground when I returned. “I plan to study Geology. I’m also a pole vaulter.”

Kelly scribbled vigorously, pausing only a moment to scratch under her snowy bob with the tip of that hard-working pen. “And what are your plans now?”

“I—” The enormity of the question and what it represented nearly slapped me back into the couch. “I haven’t really had time to figure that out.”

A stillness descended over the room. No writing, no talking. Reluctant to breathe, I waited, certain that admission spelled my family’s doom.

Kelly cleared her throat. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to figure that out pretty quickly, May.”

The word quickly had fallen off my radar. Time had become something I simply traversed through, and numbly at that. My life had become a series of moments that passed in slow motion: Dole out Mom’s pills. Make everyone’s dinner. Wait for Alice to come. Do laundry. Ensure Sophie had taken a bath. Life had devolved into a quick succession of busy nothings, or however Jane Austen had coined it.

“I know you’re grieving, dear, and you need to allow yourself to do that.” Kelly’s tone was genial, but it ripped me from my thoughts. “My intent isn’t to rush you through the grieving process, but it’s important for the health and safety of you, Logan, and Sophie that we decide what comes next.”

I offered all the reply I could muster with a feeble shrug and a line that rang of pure hopelessness. “I honestly don’t know what comes next.” I began to sink back into the sofa but quickly pulled myself up with a firm back. If Mom would have approached this line of questioning with graceful strength, then so would I. At least one of the many things that had to come next stayed in my thoughts. “But I do plan to take over guardianship of Logan and Sophie.”

Her eyes narrowed and she looked positively hawkish. “That’s part of what I’m here to decide with you.”

A flash of anger jolted through me. There was nothing to decide. I wasn’t going to allow my ever-shrinking family to be clawed apart by bureaucracy. “It’s what Mom and I decided together. It’s in her will. Would you like a copy?”

I began to rise, but Kelly waved me back down with the flick of her wrist. “I have the will. It was emailed over by the hospice center. What I mean is it’s a huge responsibility, both financially and personally. The care of young children is overseen by the state even when both parents are alive. Those are different situations, but they all fall into the lap of Social Services. I’m here to decide… really, to determine… if your guardianship is feasible.”

My heart began to race. Here to decide with me? What a load of crap. “So Mom’s will means nothing?”

“No, no, dear! Of course not!” Her face relaxed. “The will is what your mother directed, and that absolutely matters, but it’s rare in cases like this, when the oldest sibling is under the age of twenty-one. Are there no other relatives to help with the responsibility? Maybe on your father’s side? Or a grandparent?”

There was no one. Both my parents were only children, and the relationships Mom had with the rest of his family after Dad died were tense to put it mildly. “I have a grandmother in Scotland, my mom’s mom, but I want Sophie and Logan to stay here. With me. It’s what Mom wanted too.”

Kelly exhaled slowly, her coral lipstick cracking in the pucker. “All personal sacrifice aside—and raising children alone is a massive undertaking—we need to be realistic about what you can do. You should be in school. Instead you would have to get, realistically speaking, full-time employment. There’s Social Security survivor benefits and, if needed, other benefits for the kids… help with food through SNAP and energy bill assistance… but it’s hardly enough to live on, let alone thrive. Your mother’s life insurance policy, which she—”

“There’s a life insurance policy?” It felt so crass to discuss money when Mom’s body still lay under a sheet at the mortuary, but clearly the topic was of pressing importance to one Ms. Kelly Branson. “How much was it?” The thought of some time to get my feet under me offered a flicker of hope through the long, dark tunnel of this conversation.

“There was a life insurance policy. Your mother took out what’s called a viatical settlement. She sold her hundred-thousand-dollar policy to an investor for a lump sum of sixty-thousand dollars, and nearly all of it went to pay living expenses and all of the medical bills that her insurance didn’t cover.”

Crap, I’d thought she meant a different policy. We’d needed that money to live off of once Mom could no longer work. “I don’t know what’s left, but Mom and I talked about this in detail. We pulled the numbers. I can make this work.” I have to make this work.

She closed the top of her folder. “It’s apparent that your mother put a great deal of thought into how you and the kids would get on after her passing, but sometimes the thought of how things should be done and the reality of all that would entail don’t match up.”

No, that was not acceptable. “It will match up. I can make it match up.” Desperation coursed through my voice so thickly I could have choked on it.

She tucked the folder back into her purse. “You’re going to have to prove it to me, May. I need to have a game-plan from you before this decision is made, and I’d like to be party to making that plan. We’re on the same team. I want to help you all.”

The doubt in her tone sent a chill up my spine. I didn’t trust that this particular social worker really wanted to help do anything but take Logan and Sophie away. “I’ve been managing everything for a while now, so I can put together a game-plan for you.”

She stood and pulled the leather strap of her handbag over her shoulder. “Let me talk to Logan and Sophie independently, and if they want the same thing, I’ll give you a month to make your case. In the meantime, I’ll manage the arrangements for grief counseling and the kids’ benefits. I’ll come back in a week to check in, and in thirty days we’ll revisit the living and financial situation. Then we’ll make a decision.”

Her proclamation resonated like a decree from on high. I sensed the walls closing in around me, the already small condo taking on the dimensions of the coffin Mom refused to be buried in. “What happens if you don’t like my plan?”

“If we can’t prove financial means for a reliably stable, safe, and sustainable environment, and with nobody else you can turn to, there’s really only one option.”

Oh, God. Please don’t say it.

“And that’s foster care.”

CHAPTER FOUR

I wanted to go in and see her one last time before she was gone forever. Really gone. I needed to see her.

“There’s some forms you have to sign before I take you back.” Mr. Nowak’s boyish smile contradicted his meaty body. It looked like he’d squeezed himself into the gray suit, which matched his hair and was at least a full size too small. His trouser zipper was on partial strike, refusing to go more than two-thirds of the way up. His floppy belly did it’s best to cover the remainder—and nearly succeeded. With a fat finger he slid a printed disclosure across the mahogany desktop. “Read through them. Take your time.”

The first page practically screamed at me: CREMATION AUTHORIZATION AND ORDER FOR DISPOSITION. I felt confused. “I thought my mother already took care of these things.”

“She oversaw everything, but this is your bit. It’s standard.” He walked to a bookshelf packed tightly with urns of all shapes, sizes, and colors, scanning his fingers past them quickly until he found the one he was looking for. “She bought this one.”

Absolutely stunning, the white ceramic and porcelain had a Japanese lattice design of steel blue and gold around the top and sides, down to the base. The exposed white was hand painted with morning glories, cherry blossoms, violets, and camellias in an extraordinary pairing of vibrant colors. It suited Mom’s taste in both antiques and Asian art, and as it was placed before me, it practically sang of her presence. I touched the urn lightly, its silken surface cool against my skin. “This is gorgeous.”

“Your mother had great taste.” He flashed a mouth of blindingly white, veneered teeth. “She took care of all the arrangements. You just let me know when you want to do the service. We’ve got a little chapel behind us.”

It was too soon to plan that. I could barely get my shorts on this morning, so there was exactly zero chance I was going to plan a memorial service right now. Priority number one for me was a game-plan to appease the social worker. Mom would have chosen that door first too. “I’ll let you know.”

Mr. Nowak tapped his thumb on the desk. “Don’t leave it for too long. You give me a list of contacts, and I’ll do the rest.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Michele Machado is a San Francisco born literary pundit with a significant ramen addiction. When not writing review articles or shoveling Japanese noodles down her throat, she enjoys penning fiction about young women with real grit. In order to balance the serious nature of her "real job" with the more salacious stories she writes - and to avoid uncomfortable conversations with her grandparents - the pen name of Michele Machado was created.


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