“Were you really?” Nathalie narrowed her eyes and looked over the girls, as if she didn’t quite believe them.
“Yes, we visit you every Saturday,” Harper reminded her.
Nathalie’s brow furrowed in confusion, and Harper held her breath, wondering if she’d done the right thing by correcting her mom. When she was confused or frustrated, Nathalie’s temper had a tendency to get the best of her.
“You look really nice today,” Gemma said, rushing to change the subject.
“Do I?” Nathalie looked down at her Justin Bieber T-shirt and smiled. “I do love Justin.”
While Harper had taken more after their father, Gemma had gotten her looks from Nathalie. She was slender and beautiful, looking more like a model than a mother. She kept her brown hair long, covering the scars etched on her scalp from the accident. A few locks had been put in narrow braids, and a strand in her bangs had been strung with hot pink beads.
“You both look so good!” Nathalie admired her daughters and touched Gemma’s bare arm. “You’re so tan! How do you get so tan?”
“I spend a lot of time in the water,” Gemma said.
“Right, right, right.” Nathalie closed her eyes and rubbed her temple. “You’re a swimmer.”
“I am.” Gemma smiled and nodded, proud of her mother for remembering something she’d told her a thousand times before.
“Well, come in!” Nathalie erased the pained expression from her face and gestured toward the house. “I told them you were coming today, so they let me make cookies! We should eat them while they’re still warm.”
She looped her arm around Gemma’s shoulders, walking with her into the house. The staff greeted them, and by now they knew more about Gemma’s and Harper’s lives than Nathalie did.
Not that Nathalie didn’t try to learn about her daughters. She just couldn’t remember.
Nathalie claimed she’d made the cookies, but the Chips Ahoy! wrapper sat right next to the plate that she’d dumped them on. She did that a lot, for reasons Harper didn’t completely understand. Nathalie would lie about little things, making claims that Harper and Gemma knew weren’t true.
At first they’d called her on it. Harper would calmly explain why they knew it wasn’t true, but Nathalie would get irate when caught in a lie. She’d once thrown a glass at Gemma. It missed her but had shattered against the wall and cut Gemma’s ankle.
So now they simply smiled and ate the cookies when Nathalie talked about how she’d made them. She grabbed the plate of cookies and led the girls back to her bedroom.
“It’s so much better in here,” Nathalie said, shutting the door behind them. “Without people watching over us.”
Nathalie sat back on her narrow twin bed, and Gemma sat next to her. Harper stayed standing, never feeling quite comfortable in her mother’s room.
Posters covered the wall—mostly of Justin Bieber, Nathalie’s current favorite—but there was also a poster for the last Harry Potter movie and one of a puppy cuddling with a duck. Stuffed animals littered the bed, and the clothes overflowing the hamper had more color and glitter than the average adult wardrobe.
“Do you guys want to listen to music?” Nathalie asked. Before either of them could answer, she jumped off the bed and went over to her stereo. “I just got some new CDs. What do you like to listen to? I have everything.”
“Whatever you want is fine,” Gemma said. “We came here to visit you.”
“You guys can pick something.” Nathalie smiled, but there was something sad about it. “They won’t let me listen to it too loud, but we can still listen to it softly.”
“Justin Bieber?” Harper suggested, not because she wanted to hear it, but because she knew it was something Nathalie would have.
“He’s the best, isn’t he?” Nathalie actually squealed when she hit play and music came out of the speakers.
She hopped on the bed next to Gemma, making the cookies bounce off the plate. Gemma picked them up, arranging them the same way her mother had had them, but Nathalie didn’t even notice.
“So, Mom, how are things going?” Harper asked.
“Same old.” Nathalie shrugged. “I wish I lived with you guys.”
“I know,” Harper said. “But you know it’s best for you here.”
“Maybe you can come visit,” Gemma said. It was an offer she’d been making for years, but Nathalie hadn’t been home in a very long time.
“I don’t want to visit.” She pouted, sticking out her bottom lip and pulling at the hem of her T-shirt. “I bet you guys have fun all the time. Nobody ever tells you what to do.”
“Harper tells me what to do all the time.” Gemma laughed. “And of course there’s Dad.”
“Oh. Right,” Nathalie said. “I forgot about him.” Her forehead pinched in concentration. “What’s his name again?”
“Brian.” Harper smiled to hide the hurt and swallowed hard. “Dad’s name is Brian.”
“I thought it was Justin.” She waved her hand, brushing off the subject. “Did you guys want to go to the concert with me if I can get tickets?”
“I don’t think so,” Harper said. “We’ve got a lot going on.”
The conversation went on that way for a while. Nathalie asked about the girls’ lives, and they told her things they’d told her a hundred times before. When they left, Harper felt the same way she always did—drained but relieved.
She loved her mother, just as Gemma loved her mother, and they were both glad they saw her. But Harper couldn’t help wondering what any of them got out of this.
The garbage can smelled like a dead animal. Gemma wrinkled her nose and tried to avoid gagging as she tossed the bag in the can behind her house. She had no idea what her father or Harper had thrown away, but it was pretty rank.
Waving her hand in front of her face, she stepped away. Gemma breathed in the fresh night air as deeply as she could.
She glanced over at the neighbors’ house. Lately she found herself glancing over at it more and more, as if subconsciously looking for Alex. This time she was in luck. In the glow from her backyard light, she saw Alex sprawled out on his lawn, staring up at the sky.
“What are you doing?” Gemma asked, walking into Alex’s backyard without waiting to be invited.
“Looking at constellations,” Alex said, but she’d already known the answer before she’d asked. For as long as she’d known him, he’d spent more time with his head in the stars than here on the ground.