There's a point when a kid is just past his teenage years past beer bongs and fake IDs and awkward talks on birth control when he and his parents can laugh about stupid things he did when younger, knowing that he passed college, found someone willing to love and employ him, and overall escaped lasting harm. This isn't one of those times.
This time Justin is fifteen and trapped in the back room of a pharmacy by a security guard cracking open peanuts and squinting at him. Justin's already losing his breath, chest reeling with what feels like blunt trauma. His brain moves fifteen hundred miles away and zooms back on top of itself. He kicks his rubber soles into the chair legs next to him and leans back into the wall.
The guard isn't letting up he scoots his chair closer, probably likes this part. Why did you? And what are your parents going to say? Justin's heart flops, a caught fish still puckering. He wonders will the guard tell his wife later about this one, or will it get lost somewhere between the green beans and mashed potatoes at dinner? He hadn't planned on being a common thief or an uncommon one either. He isn't one to make plans.
"What do you mean arrested?" Justin's mom Mollie says into the phone, feeling the diner slow down around her. The sound of her mother's spoon from the coffee cup to saucer feels huge and echoey. She doesn't need this. She's just driven her ancient mom into the mountains for the afternoon, for no reason except both had a few hours free. They'd just stopped outside Evergreen and found a booth in a 70s-style coffee shop, flaking pastry crumbs onto the table. Mollie already was wondering what dessert to make Justin to convince him to be civil tonight. Carl's coming for dinner and then moving invery soon. They're going to tell Justin tonight. But now Justin's what? She pushes the phone into her ear.
The guard gnaws on peanut shells as he talks. Mollie imagines him with big braying donkey teeth. "Well, he's not exactly arrested. Was the wrong word." He swallows.
"For what?" Mollie's stomach hollows out. Another goddam thing she didn't do right. Carl's truck's half packed, just has to turn in his key. But so far today, things aren't going right. When Mollie left this morning, the house smelled like curdled milk, their dog was playing in the cat box again, and Mollie still hadn't had the chance to tell Justin's father Richard that she'd have to stop sleeping with him. But Mollie was going to fix that. It all had time to be fixed.
Mollie hears the guard's voice in the phone. He says, "Shoplifting."
Mollie stares out the window, tapping her hand quickly on the table, her mother scraping the last smudge of rice pudding from her bowl. "What was it?" Mollie says into the phone. What hasn't she given him? Where is his lack? Is it his father leaving and coming back and leaving again?
"Your son stole attempted to steal a shitload of prescription pills."
"Pills?" But their medicine cabinet's overflowed with expired orange bottles, amoxicillin, penicillin, vicodin from her wisdom tooth surgery. For a flash she sees Justin age four again sipping cough syrup from a spoon, lips glossy and purple, hair so blonde it's white. "Let me talk to him," she says.
"I can't," the guard says.
She hears rustling on his end, then the click of the radio, a Fleetwood Mac song she never liked. She pays the diner check and points her mom towards the front door. "Put him on," she says.
"Listen," the guard tells her. "Our manager's coming. He'll decide if he wants to file a report or not. But you should get down here. Kid's completely high."
"I want to talk to him," she says in the diner parking lot, unlocking the car for her wheezing mother. Dark orange sun strikes her face, shot from the windshield. She switches the phone to her other ear.
The guard says, "Believe me, lady, you don't." Still, he gives Justin the phone.
"Mom," Justin voice comes through, ragged, tentative, and thick.
Mollie cringes. "Hon," she says, leaning against the car. The sun starts to drop and ricochets off the mountain. "Do you know where you are?"
"What do you care?" he says.
"What do you think I care?" She takes a breath. "Tell me what happened today." There's a long pause. "Justin," she says.
"I can't," he says, stumbling through words. She imagines if his words were written on paper they'd be the shaky scrawl of a 90 year-old. "I can't remember."
At least he knows his mom's voice, she thinks, imagines he can pull the thread of it, hear a word or twoyour dad, where, tonight, no, not, whatwhat? He's back underwater fast. Mollie can hear him sinking and gets into the car.
"I'll get you," she tells him.
The pharmacy was probably built in the '50s and has its original sign on the front, though the "R" in "Drug" blinks. It's in a neighborhood near the hospital where Justin was born. They lived in a one-bedroom then, crowbar marks on the doorjamb, thank God for that neighbor's dog barking thieves away. Cigarette burns covered that carpet like bullet holes, and now that Justin has stopped hiding his own habit, Mollie always thinks she smells smoke.
Mollie has been in this run-down shopping center parking lot a hundred times, when she was someone else, still married to Richard, not just sleeping with him when Justin was still at school, still hopeful in a different sort of way. The pancake house in the same corner she remembers, the small shack for making keys, the BP station where someone was shot waiting for his change. The only change it seems is that they repaved the parking lot, and the dollar movie theater now sells real estate. The only change is that her son is held in the back of the pharmacy, her bewildered son, head probably bloated like a pumpkin. And how much is this going to cost her?
Mollie turns the car off and faces her mom. "Stay here," Mollie says, thinking she should have dropped her at the nursing home on the way down. But she'd forgotten about her on the drive and feels guilty for it.
Her mom smiles. Mollie sees that she's smeared on coral-colored lipstick that looks like wax. Her mom grips her purse on her lap with two hands.
"You can stay here," Mollie says. "Turn on the radio."
"No, sweetie." Her mother insists on going inside, gets out, stands up, totters over. Inside the drug store she installs herself in the greeting card aisle, fingering through the "get well soon" and the "hope you don't die yet" sections.
"Fine," Mollie says, heading to the back of the store.
"I tried calling the boy's father," the guard says to Mollie. They're in a back office of the pharmacy, in maroon plastic chairs like you'd find at a PTA meeting. The guard has offered Mollie weak coffee and powdered creamer that turned it milky gray. Justin is in the room behind them sleeping across two folding chairs, his shoes much larger than they seemed to Mollie on the laundry room floor earlier. Suddenly her son is huge. And twitching his leg in his sleep.
She turns the light on in the room but he doesn't wake up. She kneels next to him and puts the back of her hand on his cheek. "Justin," she says. His cheek feels soft like uncooked chicken.
He flutters an eye open, smiles in a lopsided way, and closes his eyes again. Mollie says to the guard, "Ice. Let's get him some ice."
The guard shrugs and says, "Have to go to the gas station. Stopped carrying it here."
Mollie squeezes onto the chair beside Justin's legs and tugs on one of his arms. "Sit up," she says quietly, then in a sharper voice that reminds her of dog obedience school, "You heard me. Sit up." She pulls him to a sitting position.
Justin opens both eyes halfway and gives them a minute to focus. "Mom," he says. "When did you get here?" He arches his back and rolls his head against the concrete block wall. Above him is a poster of Bruce Springsteen on a Harley in a library reminding kids to read.
"Just now," she says. "Grandma's up front."
"Nice," he says, bobbing his head to the fuzzed radio in the background.
The guard raises his eyebrow at Mollie, who's watching her son's lips moving and making no sound. "What are you doing here, Justin?" she says.
"Wasn't me," Justin says, wagging his head towards her. "It was Nelson's idea."
Mollie shakes her head. "Come on. You're the one here. What did you come here for?"
"Whatever they locked me up for."
The store manager leans through the doorway and nods to the guard, the manager's face somehow feminine and pretty like a silent movie star. The guard says to Mollie, "Leave him a minute."
Justin says, eyes closed again, "The frickin' slammer."
Mollie follows the manager into the outer office, where the guard paws out mini-chocolate bars from a plastic jack-o-lantern that probably sits there year round. He tosses one to Mollie, who wonders if the chocolate will be white.
The guard says, "Found his dad's business card in the kid's wallet. But the guy didn't answer."
"That's normal," Mollie says. She could be the asshole about it, she thinks, but won't be. "He's so busy. I'm his guardian," she says. "Justin's."
The guard puts half a chocolate bar in his mouth and pushes out his words around it. "The reason we're holding him," he says, "is not just the drugs. What it is." He looks at the manager, who stands red-vested and tight-lipped. "is that your son was found in the backseat of a car in our parking lot, completely naked."
"And out of his mind," the manager says.
There's a moment sometimes when even bad news carries a shadow of excitement; even the worst bridges collapsing or ships tearing through each other at sea somehow elevate the moment, because whatever it is, this catastrophe, is beyond the usual. Mollie feels this charge for a second before the dread floods her.
The manager steps forward, "He was found by the lady herself. One of our elderly customers. Naked in the back seat of her car. Wanted to file a complaint with the police but said she'd talk it over with her husband first."
"What was he doing?" Mollie says.
"Her husband's real sensible," the manager says, "Can probably talk her out of it."
The guard says, "Nothing was missing from her car. Didn't fuck with anything. All her Yanni tapes were still there." He tries to laugh, but no one joins him.
The manager says, "Whatever she decides is out of our hands. She's a decent customer but of a different generation. Used to punishment, responsibility. You know."
Mollie nods, sits forward in her chair, and holds up her hands. How bad of a parent was she? "Wait. What was he doing in the back of a car naked" She pauses, turns her head just thinking of it, "by himself?"
"Yes, by himself. What do you think he was doing?" The manager leans towards her and makes the hand gesture for whacking off. He quickly looks away.
The guard rubs the back of his neck, for a moment looking younger than middle aged.
"That's ridiculous," she says. "Why would a person want to do that? In a parking lot?" She wonders how life has carried her to this point. There are limits to human behavior, she thinks, a code that everyone else seems to know. She hasn't taught him right. He's not prepared. Shoddy translation. She says, "Just let me take him home."
"Listen, I'm a dad," the guard says, "They do stupid things. But sometimes making them face consequences…"
She's heard this one before in different variations all throughout her life. Who hasn't? He understands her ordealhe puts his hand on her arm to reassure her of thatbut she knows he's bound by those sacred authorities of Procedure and Appropriate Action, something her son doesn't seem to get. She sees how pale and gray the guard's face is, probably cooked twelve hours a day in these fluorescents. She wishes she'd brought her jacket in from the car. But waitshe sits up. "How did he get his clothes back on?"
The manager says, "I had to do it."
The guard tells Mollie, "He has a son, too. Wait" He turns his head toward the closed door: the thud of something falling over, then shuffling. "He's up."
Justin stomps through the doorway, his hair mashed on one side and yawning. The lines of his face remind Mollie of a badly drawn Sunday comic, the frenetic yet contained movement of his expression, a strange smile holding there. Like he hasn't been developed yet, she thinks, an idea in progress, a throwaway sketch with ink smearing outside the lines. He grabs the jack-o-lantern and an open can of Sprite from the desk. "Hi Mom," he says to Mollie. "Trick or treat."
"Treat, please," she says.
The guard starts to stand up, but the manager holds out an arm to stop him. "Let him," he says.
Mollie gets up, wonders if she should sit Justin down and right now correct every wrong thing she's ever told or forgotten to tell him, wonders how terrible she is for getting angry, knowing he's a jerk sometimes and calls her "bitch" and though they make up hours later, they somehow agree not to talk about it. "Where are you going?" she says.
"I feel like passing out," he says.
Justin pushes open the office door and stumbles into the drug store's main aisle, candy wrappers fluttering to his heels. He walks like Frankenstein, she thinks, like his limbs are connected by bolts that have rusted. Halfway down the aisle towards the doorway, where the parking lot light hazes in, he says, "Grandma. Let's go already." He drapes his arm over her shoulders, might be leaning on her like a crutch.
"Yes," his grandma says, closing a card with a duckling wearing cowboy boots, finding its hot pink envelope with its companions in the display. "I think you'd like this one."
He probably doesn't hear her. Justin turns around towards the store, raising his arms and his voice. "Is no one gonna stop me?"
Mollie thinks, oh come on.
He turns back to the door, where outside it's gotten dark. He holds the door open for his grandma and says in a low quick voice, 'All right. I'm a fugitive."
In the car, Mollie's quiet, waiting for the lights of a cop car to come spinning after them. Her mom sits in the back seat with Justin. They stare through opposite windows, though the grandma keeps a hand on her grandson's hand, and he squeezes back hard. They torpedo down 285, toward the mountains. Dark, and the mountain shapes are enormous and black before them, the lights of the city at their backs.
Mollie doesn't want to talk, but she has to. "What happened to Nelson?" She keeps picturing the little kid version of him from the Boy Scout troop, eyes watering at a fourth-grade chili cook-off.
"Ran away," Justin says. "Left me there."
"Not a friend," his grandma says. Really, Mollie thinks.
Justin leans his head back on the seat. He's sitting heavily. His body seems to take up more space than usual; it's lost its lightness somehow, Mollie thinks, watching him in the rearview mirror.
Justin says, "Fucking pothead. Only hangs out with me for the weed."
Grandma nods and murmurs, and Mollie wonders if she heard him. She imagines slimy, tobacco-stained apartments with lava lamps and cat barf on the carpets, slutty women draped over leather couches, all smoking long pipes. She isn't sure if she's surprised he smokes or not. Maybe this one Richard could handle. Really though? And when?
Mollie says, "You never told me you smoked pot."
"Next time I'll call you," Justin says.
"Not funny," Mollie says, seeing the radio towers on top of the foothills, the red lights up top telling airplanes not to hit them.
"I never said this was a comedy club."
His grandma wants a vanilla shake, but they already passed the cluster of fast food joints before getting on the highway. Mollie pulls into a gas station parking lot instead and leaves the car running. She watches grandma toddle in for a drink, thinking she should help her but convincing herself that her mom needs to reaffirm her independence. The radio's on, but the volume's all the way down. Mollie has forgotten about it even though the red call numbers are prominent on the dash. It's quiet in the car with Justin but not a comfortable quiet.
Mollie says quietly. "Look at her." She watches her mother through the windows, seeing her standing aimlessly in the aisles, picking up packages of crackers and sunflower seeds and putting them back. She stands in front of the refrigerated cases, turning her head sideways to read the bottles. Mollie looks at Justin in the rearview mirror. "Think she needs help?"
"Are you ordering me around again?"
"I'll go," Mollie says, shaking her head and pushing the button of her seatbelt.
Justin holds up an arm, then slams the car door and crosses the parking lot into the store. Mollie watches him walk away just as his father walksbut how could something that individual be passed through genes? How the hell did he learn to turn his ankles like that and carry himself with the same slight slouch? Mollie always knew Justin would become a tall man, but never expected a copy of Richard. Didn't her genes transmit at all?
Mollie's boyfriend Carl sits on the front step of the porch when they get home. The houselights are off, so he sits in the dark, only a tiny moon tonight, the neighbors' windows just reflecting a silvery haze. Mollie suddenly remembers the duplicate key she was going to give him tonight. It sits close against her leg in her pocket, another thing she'd forgotten all day. She's surprised it hasn't stabbed into her. She imagines it drawing blood.
"Hi, babe," she says, running her hand along the top of his head and shoulder. "I'm sorry we're so late." She had called him from the road three hours ago, mentioned Justin and a rescue from the pharmacy, but their conversation was cut short by an accident on the freeway. "Don't be mad," she says.
Carl had brought a couple of pounds of ground beef on a Styrofoam tray and for the past half hour has been making little balls of meat, flinging a couple of them across the yard. His hands are shiny with grease.
"Nice dinner," he says, not looking at her.
"What's wrong with you?" she says, unlocking the door. "I told you we'd be late."
Justin shoulders past them into the house, heads upstairs without saying anything and closes the door. Another night like this, Mollie thinks. His radio comes on, and she can't hear the music except for some vibrating electric guitar.
Grandma floats into the living room. She claims the reclining chair near the TV, wraps herself in a red blanket she'd knitted herself, and turns on a sitcom that Molly is surprised is still on.
Carl says, "Long day?" too loud in Grandma's direction, but she seems not to hear him. Carl stares at her as if willing her to turn her head.
Mollie says, "Bet she's tired." Mollie turns on a lamp for her mom, then grabs Carl by the elbow and pushes him towards the kitchen. She whispers, "I don't think we should tell him tonight. He's so volatile."
She tears open a stack of junk mail, flipping on light switches as she walks to the kitchen. She stops in front of the sink and looks out the window where everything is mostly black. There's a backyard out there somewhere, she thinks. Carl follows her, washes his hands and shakes them like a dog.
"Hey," she says.
Carl wraps his arms around her middle, rubbing wet fingers on her sides, looking at their reflection together in the window, Carl with his gray beard and fleece jacket he wears when hiking at sunrise, swallowing cold air; Mollie's face that still looks like her driver's license photo. She shouldn't have cut her bangs so short.
"I'm surprised you haven't told him already," Carl says.
Mollie lifts her chin and tilts her head. This Carl thing may be wrong. There's always a point when every person she's ever been with has become wrong. The last time she slept with Richard she fought the hollow of her stomach, the feeling that she wanted to keep him there and couldn't. Something about their chemistry, she thinks. They'd never lost interest in sex the way people do in relationships, marriages. He's still exciting to her now. Justin's how old? She thinks of Carl whose sex drive is slow, steady, fine, presidential she told one of her girlfriends oncethough why should he understand? If he had someone on the side, she wouldn't stay with him.
"Justin's going through enough right now," she says. "Who his mother sleeps with shouldn't be his worry."
Carl leans in so that his whiskers scrape along her neck.
"It's always about him," Carl says.
She shakes her head but doesn't say anything. "It's not like I keep you hidden," she says.
He leans his face into her shoulder. "Don't worry about it," he says. "I get it. Mother Hen and all."
Mollie knows Carl's truck is already half-packed, has been for a few days now, just waiting for her go-ahead. She knows he has already cancelled his home phone plan, had the cable disconnected, newspaper stopped, is committed to committing to her, and she's still sleeping with her ex-husband. Occasionally, not often, not more than a few times a month, she thinks, though in the past couple of weeks more often than that. It helps that Richard's "consulting" in the middle of the day gives them a clear window when they can use each other to relax. That's all it is, she thinks, it's been so hard to relax. Why should that bother anyone? How could it not?
"Richard was here," Carl says to her ear, watching her face in the reflection. "Asked if I was the new guy."
She shifts her feet. "What did he say he was he doing here?" she says.
Carl drops her hands. "The new guy? It's not like we've been together just a week."
"He's like that," she says, squirming in Carl's hold. She pulls a blue glass from the cupboard, fills it with water and watches it overflow. "Don't think about it."
Carl turns off the faucet and watches her drink. "Do you still talk to him?"
Mollie wipes her lip, brushes dust from a ceramic frog on the windowsill above the sink. She says, "Of course I still talk to him. He's still Justin's dad."
"He doesn't have a key to the house, does he?" Carl says.
Mollie pulls away from him, is quiet for a minute. "Maybe we should have dinner another night." She grabs a bowl from the dishwasher, her mom's one trophy from nursing home pottery class. Mollie finds a box of Cap'n Crunch in the cupboard, is surprised that Justin hasn't eaten it all.
"What are you doing?" Carl says.
"I'm hungry," she says, "and I'm going to eat." She pours milk over the cereal, watching the whole raft of it rise. She keeps her eyes lowered as she eats, its sweetness intoxicating.
Carl says, "That was a joke." He tries to hold onto her hips. "I just want us to be safe," he says, "Justin, too. He needs a guy like me around. Someone stable." He leans his head on her shoulder. "It doesn't have to be so hard."
Mollie spoons a huge bite of cereal into her mouth, wonders why Carl wants to talk about this now, why they can't talk about anything else. Does she even have anything else to talk about? "You'll get it one day," she says in a tired voice. They've had just one conversation about having a child together. It ended in a forty-minute drive in which neither of them spoke and he constantly played with the radio.
"Now I don't get it?" Carl says. "I'm an alien on this planet, stumbling and bumbling around?"
She leans her forehead against the cold window above the sink and watches his reflection.
"Wait, what's this?" he says, picking up a flashlight from the counter, gnawing at it like a dog with bone. "Is this what they call food?"
"You're ridiculous," she says and laughs a little without wanting to. What she wants right now is to turn on some music, drink German beer in her room, door closed, no one talking, no one needing anything. She doesn't even need the light on. Justin has all that, and why isn't he happy? She pulls a can of Ensure from the fridge and peels back the silver foil, takes a sip before pouring it into a glass for her mother.
"Oh, that's what they eat here," Carl says. He picks up the can and taps it against the side of his head, pretends to examine it. "Ancient human food."
"Vitamins," Mollie says, walking into the living room where her mother still stares one-eyed at the TV.
Grandma straightens her shoulders quickly and says, "I'm awake." She picks up the remote control and stabs at the volume button, but her finger slips and the generic announcer's voice charges at them like a runaway semi.
Mollie grabs the remote from her mom's hands and lowers it, then hands her mom the glass. 'Drink this," she says. Grandma pats her arm and drinks.
Mollie returns to the kitchen, where Justin sits at the kitchen table suddenly too small for him. He folds his hands like in Sunday school, eyes on Carl then shifting in a straight line to Mollie.
Mollie sees the dog drinking the rest of her milk made pink with cereal. "You shouldn't give that to him," she says to Carl.
Justin says, "It was me, Mom. Since when does milk hurt anybody?"
Mollie puts a hand on Carl's shoulder. Carl says, "Just talking about Justin's big day today."
"That's the truth," Justin says with a fake cheerfulness that Carl might not detect. How can he not detect it? He says to Carl, "But I'm sure Mollie here is pissed."
Carl tries standing awkwardly, then leans on the countertop. He's most comfortable outdoors and moving. Mollie likes that health-like energy about him but she's not sure how much. Carl says to Justin, "She's not pissed, just worried about you."
Mollie picks up the bowl from the floor. "How are you feeling, Justin?"
Mollie washes the bowl in the sink, sees her spoon in a small puddle on the counter, says, "Maybe you should go start up the grill. We're having a barbecue."
Justin says, "Now? Isn't it kind of late?"
Mollie looks over at Carl, tries to smile. She says, "Carl brought over some hamburger meat."
"But I was about to go to bed."
Mollie looks over at him. "No, you weren't." Justin stands there staring at her. She takes a deep breath, thinks about striking the spoon against a glass and cracking it. "I'm tired. Could you just help?"
Justin slides towards the back door, then looks at Carl. "Carl, thank you for providing for us." He steps out onto the patio. "Even though none of us are hungry." The door closes behind him.
"I'm sorry," Mollie says, straightening her back. "He's not right today." She pulls a big yellow onion from a basket under the sink and a sharp knife to skin it with.
Carl leans against the counter, fingering a small potted cactus by the phone. "Richard told me to keep an eye on you." Carl catches one of his fingers on a cactus spine and quickly withdraws his hand. He lowers his voice. "What does that mean?"
"Jesus, Carl," she says, eyes watery from the onion, "that's what ex-husbands do, try to make trouble."
Carl says, "But why would he say that? Do I need to be worried about something?"
"Of course you do," she says, chopping hard to the board. "And if you don't, you'll think of something." She turns around. A wheel of onion rolls off the counter to the ground. "Did you know that my son was almost arrested today?"
"Are you crying?" he says.
"No," she says, seeing the onion on the scuffed tile but not picking it up. Mollie hears a quick rapping at the front door. Her knife slips, and she almost cuts her finger but pulls back so it only grazes her nail. She imagines if she'd cut off her whole hand, for a second imagines her hand just sitting there like meat.
"Oh yeah," Carl says, rolling his eyes. "Richard said he'd come back to check on him."
Mollie starts to ask Justin to open the door but realizes he's out back on the patio. She says to Carl, "Can you get that?"
Carl levels a stare at her that reminds her of a judge staring down his defendant.
"Fine," she says, clattering the knife onto the cutting board and walking to the door.
Carl says, "Wait."
"Too late," she says, opening the door with her elbows, not her oniony hands, and there's Richard, tall with gray-brown hair, his face large-jawed like a soap opera star if only his other features were in proportion.
"How's he doing?" Richard says. "Are you crying?"
"You should've called," she says. "It's an onion. Haven't you guys sliced an onion before?"
Mollie leaves the door open and walks past her sleeping mom back to the kitchen. Richard follows her. She keeps her back to both Richard and Carl and washes the knife in the sink.
"Hi Carl," Richard says, walking into the kitchen. "I came back."
Carl says, "I guess you did."
Mollie won't look at either of them, feels her shoulders tense up, a restrained sort of formality seeping into her actions and speech, forcing her to navigate through them. She says, "Justin's outside. King of the grill." Lighting the whole house on fire, she thinks, and he might as well do it. Let them start over from scratch.
Carl and Richard stand like two strangers at a bus stop, round-shouldered, not saying anything. Mollie pushes between them and slides open the glass door. "Go," she says to them both. "He's waiting for you." She calls, "Justin, Dad's here."
Richard walks out onto the patio. Carl hovers at the doorway inside stretching out his arms the way a weekend jogger does before take-off. If he moves in, they'll probably have to start buying oat bran, Mollie thinks, and find recipes for root vegetables she hasn't even heard of yet. Carl's eyes are pasted on her; his trusting, never-stay-mad-long eyes.
"You go, too," Mollie says, washing a fat tomato.
Carl says quietly, "You don't want a minute alone?"
She walks over and kisses him on the forehead. "Not now," she says, arranging tomato slices on a plate she rescued from her mother's fine china. Carl leaves, closing the door behind him. For a second there, Mollie hears only the distant snores of her mother and the dog. She turns off the overhead kitchen light so there's just a small yellow glow above the oven. Through the back window she watches Carl hand Richard a beer, claiming the right to be host. The porch lights draw moths. Standing on the patio, the men stare into the treeless yard, their dislike buzzing like an electric fence between them. Justin keeps his head down at the grill. Maybe seriously focusing, maybe pretending to be occupied.
"Justin," she calls out the window. "I need your help." He looks up at her but doesn't move. "Come on," she says, wiping clean the tomato knife.
He trudges in, barely lifting his thick-soled sneakers from the floor. "What?"
She sends him to check on his grandma, then to the garage for a case of soda. She steps onto the patio with a stack of paper plates. The sprinklers turn on in the neighbor's yardshe can hear this much through the fenceeven though night has already fallen. For a second, elementary school summers race back towards herbackyard runs, leaping fences, someone chasing her, she never knew whom.
Richard gestures his beer bottle towards the house and says to her, "He seems okay."
She says, "Yeah, I think the police gave him a scare."
"Don't worry," Carl says, slowly sipping his beer. "I'll look after him when I move in."
Richard looks at Mollie but doesn't say anything. She sets the table with plastic forks, pretending she didn't hear.
"I didn't realize that was in the cards for you two," Richard says. "Mollie."
Carl takes a long swallow. "I thought she told you." He says, "We've been planning it for a while."
Justin opens the sliding door just wide enough to get through sideways. "Grandma's out cold," he says, sliding the case of Coke across the picnic table. "What are you planning?"
Mollie looks at Carl, then at Justin, who's now staring at her. Everyone's trying to catch her attention. If not for her, none of this would exist, she thinks.
"What are you planning?" Justin says again.
Carl says, "Your mom and I are going to live together. Here."
Justin looks at his dad, then searches out his mother's face. She's closed her eyes for a minute and says, "We were planning to tell you tonight."
Justin says, "Then why didn't you?"
"There wasn't time yet," she says. She straightens up the plastic salt and pepper shakers she always brings to picnics.
"There's been plenty of time," Justin says. "There's been hours."
Carl says, "You haven't noticed, but your mom's been busy with your criminal behavior."
Mollie reaches out to hug Justin but he stands wooden as a mannequin, not registering her reach at all. "I'm sorry," Mollie says. "We were trying to feed you first. You had an ordeal today."
"That's bullshit," he says. "I'm fine."
"Want to talk about bullshit?" Carl says, "You almost OD'd on drugs today. I'd call that bullshit."
Richard says, "Kids do stupid things."
Carl ignores him. "You were found in the back of a woman's carnaked. What were you doing in there, Justin? You were high. What the hell did you think was going to happen?"
"Come on," Richard says.
Carl looks around. "Is no one going to punish him? No, let's have a picnic instead."
Richard says, "Wait a second, Carl."
Carl says, "I'm just trying to understand how someone ends up in such a boneheaded situation. You have to have about as much sense as a duck. No, as much sense as a bowl of rice. Are you smarter than a bowl of rice, Justin? Please tell me you're smarter than a bowl of rice."
"You weren't there," Justin says. His voice gets low. "I didn't almost OD." He walks inside and crosses the kitchen towards the staircase to his room. Carl starts to follow him, but Richard holds up his arm and goes instead.
Mollie wants to go, too, but instead stands above the grill, figuring someone has to keep things going and feeling used to the job. "So much craziness." She puts her head down and says to Carl, "I don't know why you'd want to join this family. I really really don't" She looks up, "But I think it's probably time for you to go home tonight."
Half an hour later Mollie knocks on Justin's bedroom door. Richard's still in there. How much do they have to talk about? What weird detail is Richard bringing up from his past, or making up, to console him? She says to the door, "Anyone still hungry?"
"Starving," Richard says finally. "Us both."
"It's getting cold," she says and walks into her bedroom. She stands in the dark and listens for Justin's feet on the stairs; he takes them two by two. Her window faces the street, so a passing car's light grazes her. The neighbors are home after all.
Richard slips from Justin's room into the darkened hallway. Mollie hears him stub his toe on the linen closet door, as he used to do when he still lived here, as he's done at least twice since he's come back for her in the afternoons. She hears him curse and turn on the bathroom faucet, probably running cold water on his foot, a solve-all remedy from childhood. Mollie leaves her room and leans against the wall by the bathroom doorway, where Richard is framed by light, pant leg rolled up and foot in the sink.
"Did Justin bite you?" she says finally, catching his eyes, trying to laugh.
Richard shakes his head, drags his foot out of the sink, dripping water on the floor.
Mollie pulls a towel the color of dried apricots from the linen closet. "This one's clean."
He wraps it around his foot, is a little fussy for a stubbed toe, she thinks, but she doesn't question it. He says, "You didn't tell me it was serious."
"It's not serious," she says.
"Carl's moving in, Mollie." He rolls down his pant leg and looks at her in the mirror.
Mollie feels like she lost ownership of her days, is being scolded like a child. She can't remember if Carl was originally an idea for her or for Justin. Where did he even come from? She starts to say, "It's just"
"I know," Richard says, holding up his hand. "I get it," he says. "But I don't get it."
She closes her eyes for a second. "I can't control Justin anymore," she says.
"All this is normal," he says.
She shakes her head. "Naked in a parking lot?"
Richard turns and puts a hand against her cheek. "Even that," he says, then kisses her. And that kiss turns into a longer kiss, like it always does, and though rationally Mollie knows what will follow that kiss, to the end and then after, she doesn't care what happens next. It's not love, she thinks, not the kind that sustains you anyway. She leans into it. But when she looks up she sees Justin watching them with a crooked expression. For a second she wonders if he's high again and feels bad for thinking so.
Justin says, "What the hell?"
"Justin," Mollie says, dropping her arms to her sides.
"So it is true," he says.
Richard says, "What's true?"
"You can't trust anyone." He walks back towards his room, dragging his fingers against the wall.
Mollie calls down the hall, "That's not how it is."
Justin yells back, "Then how the hell is it?"
Early the next morning, Richard still sleeps in Mollie's room. Carl jogs through his own neighborhood, probably waiting for a late enough hour to call her. The sky is still all the colors of classical Greek paintings, before the harsher light tramples in. Mollie sits on the back patio and looks up at the house, its windows glowing in a way that reminds her of the rainbow surface of spilled gasoline. She sees through the kitchen windows, looks for the silhouette of her son by the counter, of her son rifling through the utensils, of him waiting for the toast to ding, the kettle to flare up and boil, but doesn't see him. She watches, because she knows he'll be there soon, and she'll be there to talk to him. Until then he must be sleeping.