“Hard to imagine,” Nan says. “Timmy—just go to bed. Mommy will be home soon and she’s not going to keep buying that you took too much Benadryl because of your allergies. She knows you don’t have allergies.”

“I do so,” Tim says loudly, all out-of-proportion indignant. He pulls a joint out of the front pocket of his shirt and waves it at her triumphantly. “I’m allergic to weeds.” Then he bursts out laughing. Nan and I exchange a look. Tim is usually stoned and drunk. But there’s a nervous, jacked-up energy about him now that hints at harder stuff.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say. “Walk downtown.”

She nods. “How about Doane’s? I need some chocolate malt ice cream.” She grabs her purse from a puffy flowered chair and leans over, giving Tim, who is still chuckling, a shake. “Go upstairs,” she says. “Now. Before you fall asleep.”

“I’m not gonna fall asleep, sis. I’m just restin’ my eyes,” Tim mumbles.

Nan nudges his shoulder again. As she moves away, he grabs her purse so she jerks to a stop.

“Nano. Sis. Nan, kid, I need something,” he says urgently, his face all desperate.

She raises a pale eyebrow at him.

“A shitload of jelly beans from Doane’s, okay? But no green ones. They scare me.”

Chapter Seven

On the porch, I grab Nan’s hand, squeeze it.

“I know!” she says. “It’s so much worse since he got kicked out of Ellery. He spends all day like this, and God knows what he does at night. My parents are completely and totally without a clue. Mommy buys all his lies—‘Oh, that’s catnip in that bag, Ma. Oh, those pills? Aspirin. That white stuff? Just salt.’ Then she busts him for swearing—by making him put money in the swear box. He just swipes more from my purse. And Daddy? Well.” She shrugs.

Mrs. Mason is the most relentlessly cheerful person I’ve ever met. All her sentences begin with exclamations: So! My! Well! Goodness! By contrast, Mr. Mason rarely says anything at all. When we were little, I had this windup toy, a plastic chick from an Easter basket—and I thought of him sort of like that. He remained virtually unmoving in a plaid armchair from the moment he got home till dinner, then resumed his position after dinner until bedtime, wound up only long enough to get to and from work and to and from the table.

“He’s even got Tim’s pot plant in with his own plants, giving it Miracle-Gro. What kind of man was young in the eighties and doesn’t recognize marijuana?” She’s laughing, but her voice has a hysterical note. “It’s like Tim’s drowning and they’re worried about the color of his swimsuit.”

“And you can’t tell them?” I ask, not for the first or second or hundredth time. Although who am I to talk? I didn’t exactly ’fess up to Mom about Tim either.

Nan laughs but doesn’t really answer. “This morning when I came down to breakfast, Daddy was saying maybe Tim needed military school to make a man out of him. Or a stint in the army. Can you imagine? You just know he’d be that soldier who got his superior officers so angry they’d stick him in some horrible underground cave and forget he existed. Or ticked off the campus bully and got himself beaten to death. Or got into trouble with some drill sergeant’s wife and then shot in the back by her enraged husband.”

“Good thing you haven’t spent much time worrying about the possibilities,” I say.

Nan loops an arm around my shoulder. “I’ve missed you, Samantha. I’m sorry. I’ve been all caught up in Daniel—going to his graduation parties—just staying away from home, really.”

“What’s going on there?” I can tell she’s dying to get into it, get away from the Tim drama.

“Daniel.…” She sighs. “Maybe I should stick to crushing on Macho Mitch and Steve McQueen. I can’t figure out what’s going on with him. He’s all tense and wigged out about going to MIT, but you know how brilliant he is—and school doesn’t start for three months anyway. I mean, it’s June. Can’t he just relax?”

“Right.” I nudge her with my shoulder. “Because you know all about that, girl who orders college catalogs the millisecond after junior year ends.”

“That’s why he and I are a perfect match, right?” she says with a little grimace. A breeze comes up as we turn down Main Street, shaking the leaves in the maples that line the road so they make a soft, sighing sound. The air smells lush and green, briny from the sound. As we near the Dark and Stormy, the local dive bar/hamburger joint, two figures emerge from the door, blinking a little in the bright sun. Clay. And a very pretty brunette woman in a designer suit. I stop, my attention caught, as he gives her a big smile, then leans forward to kiss her. On the lips. With a little back-rubbing thrown in.

I’d expected to see more of Clay Tucker, but not like this.

“What is it, Samantha?” Nan asks, pulling at my arm.

What’s going on? It wasn’t a French kiss, but it was definitely not a she’s-my-sister kiss.

“That’s my mom’s new boyfriend.” Now Clay squeezes the woman’s shoulder and winks, still smiling.

“Your mom has a boyfriend? You’re kidding. When did that happen?”

The woman laughs and brushes Clay’s sleeve.

Nan glances at me, wincing.

“I don’t know when they met. It seems sort of serious. I mean, it looked like it. On my mom’s end.”

Now the brunette, whom I notice is at least a decade younger than Mom, opens up a briefcase and hands Clay a manila folder. He tilts his head at her in a you’re-the-best way.

“Is he married, do you know?” Nan asks in a hushed voice. It suddenly occurs to me that we’re standing still on the sidewalk, quite obviously staring. Just then, Clay looks over and sights us. He waves at me, seemingly unabashed. If you cheat on my mother, I think, then let the thought trail off, because, in all honesty, what’ll I do?

“She’s probably just a friend,” Nan offers, unconvincingly. “C’mon, let’s get that ice cream.” I give Clay one last look, hopefully conveying imminent harm to treasured body parts if he’s cheating on my mom. Then I follow Nan. What else can I do?

I try to erase Clay from my mind, at least until I can get home and think. Nan doesn’t bring it up again, thank God.