“What permission slip?” Kit asked.
“The one about the field trip to the Getty. For my art class. I needed Nina to make it look like Dad signed it. I left it on the coffee table.”
“The yellow thing?” Kit asked. “I threw it away.”
“Kit!” Hud said, irritated.
“I told you all: Keep it in your room or I’ll throw it in the trash.”
Hud went through the garbage and found it, wrinkled and stained with butter. “Where’s Nina?” he asked.
Jay came in and saw Hud with the permission slip. “You know, any one of us can forge Dad’s name.”
“Nina’s better at it.”
Jay turned to Kit. “Do you think we should buy some of those headshots people have of Dad? And sign them? And then sell them?”
Hud looked at Jay, frowning. “Don’t put that in her head.”
“It’s not a terrible idea,” Jay said. “He is our dad.”
Hud ignored him and went looking for Nina. He found her brushing her hair in the bathroom. “Can you sign this?”
Nina grabbed the pen out of his hand and scrawled “M. Riva” across it.
“Thanks,” Hud said. But he stayed a moment longer. “People are going to figure it out. That he’s not here. That he’s … never been here.”
“Everyone knows he’s not here,” Nina said. “The whole school administration knows he’s not here.”
Principal Declan had pulled Nina aside two months prior and told her that he understood her predicament. And as long as it looked like someone was home, he wasn’t going to call the state. “You’re almost eighteen. I don’t want you all split up into different homes or anything else they might do. You’ve been through enough. So … make it look good and we’ll be all set, all right?”
Nina had thanked him as casually as possible and then bawled her eyes out in the girls’ bathroom.
“But I’m saying … how much longer can we really keep this ruse going?” Hud asked. “At some point, we’re going to come up against a problem we really can’t solve without help.”
“I got it, Hud,” Nina said. “Trust me. Whatever it is, whatever happens, whatever we run into or need … I will take care of it.”
They were living off the profits from the restaurant, which was being run by a shift manager named Patricia, who Nina had promoted on the spot one day shortly after her mother died. Nina was flying by the seat of her pants.
But what other choice did she have? June had been gone for four months. Mick still hadn’t so much as sent a sympathy card. And somewhere in all of those days and weeks and now months of the phone not ringing, Nina had given up on her father’s humanity.
She’d consulted an attorney—a guy she found in the yellow pages—who told her that in order to force Mick to comply with his legal duty as their father, she would need to alert the authorities, who would most likely pursue child abandonment charges. Nina bristled at the idea of its making the papers.
“Or,” the attorney told her gently, “if you stay under the radar until then, you can file for legal guardianship of them once you turn eighteen.”
So it was Nina who signed permission slips, drove them to school, and sometimes answered the phone pretending to be an aunt they didn’t have.
When Kit got called into the elementary school principal’s office for an “attitude problem,” after telling a teacher of hers to “eat it,” it was Nina who smoothed things over after school, explaining that her father was “performing in New York right now,” but that she, herself, would make sure Kit never behaved like that again.
Nina would sometimes have to sneak off the high school grounds during her lunches in order to get to the post office and the bank. Sometimes she’d have to skip school altogether in order to work at the restaurant when too many people called in sick.
Every week, she’d try to understand the accounting books, haphazardly kept by Patty. Nina would take what cash she could to pay what she had to.
The bills came in faster than the money. Past due notices showed up, the gas got turned off. Nina lost an entire two days negotiating with the gas company to turn it back on. She had to commit to a payment plan that she knew she could not follow.
She was flunking French and had three incompletes in English.
She worried herself sick—new symptoms popping up with every unpaid bill and failing grade. She worked through back spasms and eye twitches and ulcers that she was too young for. She held the stress in her body, suppressed it in her chest, clenched it in her shoulder blades, let it boil in her gut.
When Patty quit to move back to Michigan, Nina’s heart sank deeper into her chest from the sheer weight of it all. On the one hand, it was one fewer person to pay. On the other, Nina would have to do Patty’s job.
“I can’t do this,” she would cry to herself in her mother’s bed at night sometimes, quietly and humbly, sure to not wake up anyone else. “I don’t think I can do this.”
She hoped to hear her mother’s voice in those moments, hoped for some sort of guidance from the beyond, as if such things existed. But she heard nothing, just the shocking quiet of her desperation.
By April of her junior year, Nina’s tardies and truancies had already tallied up to a number that meant she would have to repeat the year. It seemed clear to her then that she simply did not have time to get an education. Suddenly, English class, which had, for so long, seemed like a burden, was a luxury she could not afford. She dropped out.
And officially took over running Riva’s Seafood.
She would wake every morning and get her brothers and sister up, make sure they packed lunches, and then get them to school.
“Did you do your homework?” she’d say to Kit as Kit hopped out of the backseat.
“Did you do your homework?” she’d say to Hud.
“Did you do your homework?” she’d say to Jay.
“Yes,” they would all say. Sometimes Hud would give her a hug through the window. And then all three of them would walk off, into school. And Nina would drive up the coastline, and park in the parking lot of Riva’s Seafood.
She would open the front door with her keys, turn the lights on, check the inventory, meet the deliverymen, sweep the floor, greet her employees as they trickled in.
And then she would take her place, just as her mother and grandmother had before her, behind the register.
• • •
The morning of Nina’s eighteenth birthday, Jay went out to get bagels for her as a surprise and then crashed the car into the mailbox pulling back into the driveway.
Kit ran out at the sound of the crash and gasped when she saw the mailbox on the ground. The hood of the car was crunched into a tiny v in the center. “Nina’s gonna kill you,” she said.
“Thanks, Kit, very helpful!” Jay yelled. His chest was growing red, his cheeks started to flush.
“Why did you swing that way coming in?” Kit asked. “You took the turn too wide.”
“Not now, Kit!” Jay said, trying to reattach the mailbox.
Hud came out and immediately checked the hood. The car was still drivable, even if it was now ugly.
Nina rushed out behind him and took one look at the situation: Jay embarrassed, Hud reassuring him, Kit with her arms crossed in judgment. She wanted to bury her head in her hands and start the day over. “It’s all right,” she said. “The car still runs, right?”