“I didn’t— It’s not about—”

She starts rubbing my back the way she did when I had nightmares when I was little. “Sweetie, you just don’t understand how hard it is to be a parent, much less a single one. I’ve been working without a map since you both were born. Never knowing if I’m making the right call. Look at Tracy and that shoplifting incident. And you and that Michael, who might have been doing drugs for all I know.”

“Mom. He didn’t do drugs. I’ve told you that before. He was just weird.”

“Be that as it may. This is the sort of thing I just can’t have going on during the campaign. I need to focus. I can’t have you distracting me with these antics.”

Antics? Like I’ve returned stark naked in the wee hours of the morning, reeking of alcohol and pot.

She strokes my back a few more minutes, then frowns. “Why is your hair wet?”

The lie slips out easily, though I’ve never lied to Mom before.

“I took a shower at Nan’s. We were trying on makeup and doing a conditioning treatment.”

“Ah.” Then, her voice low: “I’m keeping an eye on you, Samantha. You’ve always been my good girl. Just…act like it, okay?”

I always have. And this is where I’ve wound up. Still, I whisper, “Okay,” and lie very still beneath her fingers. Finally she stands up, says good night, and leaves.

After about ten minutes, I hear a tapping at my window. I freeze, listening for evidence that Mom heard too. But all’s quiet downstairs. I open the window to find Jase crouching on my balcony.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Then, looking closely at my face: “Are you?”

“Wait a minute,” I tell him, practically shutting the window on his fingers. I hurry to my door, to the top of the stairs, and shout down, “I’m taking that shower now, Mom.”

“Use conditioner!” she calls back, sounding much more relaxed. I duck into the bathroom, turn the water on full blast, and return to open the window.

Jase seems perplexed. “Everything all right?”

“Mom’s a little protective.” I fling one leg, then the other out the window, and sit down next to Jase, who’s folded himself comfortably against the gable. The night breeze is sighing past us, and the stars are so bright.

“This was my fault. I was driving. Let me talk to your mom. I’ll tell her…”

I imagine Jase being confronted by Mom. That I missed curfew for the first time while in the company of “One of Those Garretts” would confirm, for her, everything she’s ever said about them. I just know it.

“It wouldn’t help.”

He reaches out, folding my cold hand in his warm one. Apparently feeling the chill, his other palm closes on it too. “You sure you’re okay?”

I would be if I didn’t keep picturing Mom coming up to make sure I was using enough conditioner and finding me out here. I swallow. “I’m fine. See you tomorrow?”

He leans forward, my hand still enclosed in his, moving his lips from the bridge of my nose down to my mouth, coaxing it open. I start to relax into him, then think I hear a knock.

“I’ve got to go. I—good night?”

He gives my hand a squeeze, then me a grin so dazzling it squeezes my heart even harder. “Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

Despite those kisses, I can’t relax. Ten minutes late in a lifetime and I’m an issue for the campaign? Maybe Mom and the Masons can get a discount on military school if they ship me and Tim off together.

I stop the shower, slamming the frosted glass door loudly. In my room, I pick up my pillow, punching it into shape. I don’t know how I’ll sleep. My body’s tight. In this moment, if Charley Tyler made a pass at me, I’d go all the way, even knowing it meant nothing to him. If Michael actually were a drug addict and offered me instant oblivion, I’d take it, even though I hesitate before taking an aspirin. If Jase knocked on the window again and told me we were going to take a motorcycle trip to California right now, I’d go.

What’s the use of being the me I’ve always been when my mother is hardly recognizable?

Chapter Fifteen

The next time I babysit, Mrs. Garrett takes me grocery shopping, so I can entertain the kids and wrestle junk food out of their hands while she scans her stack of her coupons and expertly fields commentary.

“You certainly have your hands full.” She hears that one a lot.

“With good things,” she responds calmly, removing Count Chocula cereal from George’s eager grasp.

“You must be Catholic,” is another she gets time and time again.

“No, just fertile.” She peels Harry’s hands away from the latest Transformer action hero.

“That baby needs a hat,” lectures a severe-looking elderly woman in the freezer aisle.

“Thank you, but not really, she has several nice ones at home.” Mrs. Garrett picks up an economy-size box of frozen waffles and adds it to the cart.

I hand Patsy a bottle of juice, prompting a crunchy-granola-looking woman in Birkenstocks to say, “That baby is much too old for a bottle. She should be on a sippy cup by now.”

Who are these people, and why do they think their own opinions are the only right ones?

“Don’t you ever just want to kill them, or at least swear at them?” I ask in an undertone, steering the cart away from the crabby sippy-cup woman, with Harry and George clinging to either side like spider monkeys.

“Of course.” Mrs. Garrett shrugs. “But what kind of example would that be?”

I’ve lost track of how many laps I’ve done, but I know it’s less than I used to be able to do, and I’m winded but invigorated when I climb the ladder, squeezing water from my hair. I’ve loved swimming ever since I can remember, ever since I was brave enough to follow Tim out of the safe shallows into the bigger waves. I’m going to get back on that team. I dash the towel across my face, check the clock—fifteen minutes till the pool opens, which is usually accompanied by a surge of people through the gates. My cell phone buzzes on my chair.

Take a break, Aqua girl! Nan’s texted me, from the B&T gift shop. Come C me.

Stony Bay is very proud of Stony Bay. The B&T’s gift shop, By the Bay Buys, is chockablock full of items advertising various town landmarks. As I walk in, Nan is already open for business, saying sweetly to a gentleman in pink plaid shorts, “As you can see, you could get this mouse pad of Main Street, and then these placemats with the aerial view of the river mouth, this little lamp that looks like our lighthouse, and these coasters with the view of the dock—and you wouldn’t need to go outside at all. You could see the whole town from your dining room.”