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I open my eyes and then crawl back into bed. Praying is so awkward. Maybe I should do it more.

“Oh, yeah. Amen.”

Chapter Five

Merit, wake up.”

I didn’t know it was possible to roll my eyes before opening them, but I accomplish this feat. “What,” I grumble, pulling the covers over my head.

“You need to wake up,” Honor says. She flips on the light to my bedroom. I pull my cell phone out from under my pillow to see what time it is.

“It’s six in the morning,” I mutter, annoyed. “None of us wake up this early.” Not to mention she knows I don’t go to school anymore, so what’s it matter if I’m awake?

“It’s six in the evening, dumb ass. It’s your night to take Mom dinner.” She slams the door.

It’s six in the evening? Which means it’s still today. Shitty today.

Joy.

I spoon mashed potatoes onto a plate next to a piece of blackened chicken. There may not be much about Victoria to like, but her cooking has always been good. I do wonder, though, what it must be like to have to cook extra food every night for your husband’s ex-wife who lives in your basement.

I spin around to grab a roll for the plate, but I bump into Sagan, who has appeared behind me. “Sorry.” I try to move around him before having to inhale his scent, or God forbid, look at his face. I move left, he moves right. We’re still in each other’s way. I move right, he moves left. Are you freaking kidding me?

He laughs at our little dance, but that’s because he can breathe when he’s around me. He only loses his breath around Honor. I finally spin and walk the other direction and go around the bar. Right before I reach the basement door, I glance back in the kitchen. Honor is now standing next to her boyfriend, making her plate. But he’s staring at me with a quizzical look.

He must think I’m such a bitch, especially when something as simple as being in his way happens. I’m not able to laugh it off like he does. I get frustrated and go the other direction.

“Merit?”

I’m not even halfway down the stairs and she can tell it’s me. She’s somehow memorized the footsteps of everyone in the house. I guess when all you do is watch Netflix and play on Facebook, you get pretty good at listening to footsteps.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

She’s sitting on the couch when I make it down to the basement. She closes her laptop and slides it to the floor. “What’s for dinner tonight?”

“Chicken and potatoes again.” I hand her the plate and take a seat next to her on the couch. She looks at the plate and sets it down on the table next to her.

“I’m not really that hungry,” she says. “I’m trying to lose ten pounds.”

“Maybe you should go for a run. The weather is nice.”

She frowns. I think I’m the only one who still tries to encourage her to go outside. But at this point, it’s not really encouragement. It’s more a sarcastic suggestion.

“You haven’t been down to see me since last week.” She reaches up her hand to brush my hair over my shoulder, but she hesitates before touching me. Her hand falls back to her lap. “Have you been sick?”

Frustrated is a better word. The older I get, the harder it is to understand her phobia. I get not wanting to leave your house, but to hole yourself up in a basement for years while your children continue to live their lives upstairs seems more like the world’s longest temper tantrum than a social phobia.

“Yeah, I haven’t been feeling well,” I say.

“Is that why you’ve been out of school?”

I narrow my eyes a bit, wondering how she knows I haven’t been going to school.

“Your principal called today to check on you.”

“Oh. What did you tell him?”

She shrugs. “I didn’t answer my cell phone. He left a voice mail.”

I let out a quiet sigh of relief. At least the school doesn’t know the extent of her social phobia. They still call her before calling our father whenever an issue arises.

My mother tosses the blanket off her lap and stands up. “Can you mail something for me tomorrow?” She walks the length of her living room—all four feet of it—and grabs an empty box from her shelf. “I have some books I promised I’d get to Shelly.”

My mother may not leave the basement, but she’s got more friends than Honor and I put together. She’s obsessed with reading and has joined several online reading groups. If she isn’t watching Netflix, she’s reading a book or doing video chats with her book friends. I sometimes walk in on her video chats and she’ll introduce me and make me talk to her friends. She tries so hard to put on the air of a normal mother leading a normal life. But sometimes when I’m forced to be in one of her videos, I get the urge to scream, “She hasn’t left the basement in two years!”

“Shelly said she mailed me a package last week. It should be here tomorrow.”

“I’ll bring it down when it gets here,” I assure her. She writes an address on the box and while she has her back to me, it’s the first I’ve noticed of her outfit. She’s wearing a black maxi dress that goes all the way to her feet. “Your dress is cute. Is it new?”

My mother nods, but doesn’t reveal how she got it. She must order her clothes online because she hasn’t had a visitor other than her children and occasionally my father when they need to discuss a parenting issue. It’s a shame, too, because she’s gorgeous for her age. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t left the basement in forever; she still takes very good care of herself. She applies makeup every morning and her hair is always washed and styled. She probably still shaves her legs every day, which makes no sense because if I decided to never leave the house again, the first thing I would do is stop shaving.

Maybe she’s in an online relationship. Normally I wouldn’t advocate for those, but I support anything that might give her motivation to leave the basement in the future.

I take the box from her and head toward the stairs. I used to hang out with her for longer periods of time, but it’s gotten hard to do that lately. I’m starting to resent her. I used to feel sorry for her and assumed her social phobia wasn’t something she could control. But the older I get and the more of my life she misses by choosing to stay in the basement, the angrier at her I am. Sometimes I get so angry when I’m down here, I start shaking and have to leave before I explode on her.

Which is where things will lead if I don’t get out of this basement right now.

“See you later, Mom,” I say as I head back up the stairs.

“Merit,” she says, calling after me.

I let the door to the basement close behind me.

Victoria is in the kitchen, cutting up a chicken breast for Moby. Everyone else is already at the table eating. I grab a plate for myself, just as my father walks through the front door. It’s half past six now and his football game starts at seven, so he has his dinner plate made before I do. When I finally walk my food to the table, there’s only one empty seat left. Right next to what’s-his-face. Honor is on the other side of him, leaning into him and laughing at something he just said. I’m sure it was clever, whatever it was.

I plop down in my chair and scoot it forward. Moby is seated on my other side, to my relief. “You have a good day?” I ask him.

He’s shoving a bite of corn in his mouth when he nods. “Tyler got in trouble for saying bastard.”

Most of us laugh, but Victoria gasps. “Moby, that’s a bad word!”

“Technically, it isn’t,” my father says.

Victoria glares at my father. “It is when you’re only four and you say it at preschool.”

“What’s a bastard?” Moby asks.

“A kid born to parents who haven’t gotten married yet. It’s what you almost were,” I reply.

You would think I slapped the kid with the way Victoria reacts to my comment. She immediately pushes her chair back and stands up. “Go to your room!”

I laugh because at first I think she’s kidding. But then I stop smiling because her anger is authentic. You’ve got to be kidding me. I look at my father and he’s staring at Victoria, his fork paused in front of his mouth. I look back at Victoria. “He asked what a bastard was. Did you want me to lie to him?”

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