Carly Shay is six years, five months, and eleven days old when her mother runs away from home.
It isn't so bad, at first – because at first, she thinks Mommy is sleeping late again and that she'll miss silent reading time at school if Mommy doesn't hurry up. But she's a big girl and she knows how to tie the laces on her shoes by herself and how to make a bowl of cereal and eat it in front of the TV while she watches Blues Clues (even though Amber, a girl in her class, says Blues Clues was for babies, Carly still likes it. Magenta is pretty, she thinks).
There is a hazy quality to the day, and Carly finally realizes that it's because the sun is much brighter in the living room of their house than it usually is, and before she knows it Steve is waving goodbye from his make-believe house and the green block letters on the TV clock say that it is 7:30. Carly's stomach flips, but she is six years old and she knows not cry out with the realization that her school is starting right now. It's like Mommy always says, she is a big girl, and so she walks to the sink and rinses out her bowl and puts it inside the dishwasher. She goes to her room and finds a brush and runs it through her hair, because she forgot to do it after she woke up and Mommy hates fighting with it when it gets tangled.
Mommy hasn't come out of her room yet, and so Carly goes to the door of her mother's bedroom and crouches down on her hands and knees and listens for the sound of slow sleep-breathing. She isn't supposed to bother Mommy when she's in her room, but Carly isn't sure about now - because once she cut her hand when she making a paper crown with the nice colored paper her brother Spencer gave her when he last came to visit, but Mommy was in her room and she wasn't supposed to bother her. Except Mommy was mad and exasperated and kind of worried (but not really) when she finally did come out and saw Carly with a soaked-through-with-red band-aid stuck on her throbbing finger.
Now, Carly sits up again, biting on her lip. Something in her wants to open the door anyway and maybe get yelled at and put in time out - but another part of her is saying that she doesn't have to go to school and if Mommy comes out on her own and is mad about Carly not waking her up, she can just say that her mother has told her over and over not to bother her in her room. She can't get in trouble for that. Right?
And so Carly stands up and goes back into the living room and turns on some new show called Girly Cow. She laughs at the jokes and there is a marathon on and when she looks at the green block letters again, there is a funny squiggle in her stomach because now is when her class would be going to the lunchroom. She is hungry again, and so she goes into the kitchen and makes herself a sandwich with only-peanut-butter-not-jelly, clambering up on the counter to reach. Her fingers are sticky when she is done, and Mommy still hasn't come out of her room.
Carly eats in the living room. Some boring grown-up show comes on, so she changes the channel to more cartoons and tries to comfort herself (she's gotten good at that since Daddy left to go be on boats all the time and Spencer threw his hat in the air at school and moved to a brand new apartment). Mommy is just very tired, that's why she hasn't woken up. She stays up late, Carly knows, because she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and goes to the bathroom and sees Mommy sitting on the couch, smoking a cigarette even though Daddy hated it when she did that. Mommy sat still, staring straight ahead or maybe out the window, but she never saw Carly.
Mommy, you shouldn't stay up so late, Carly imagines herself saying, finishing her sandwich and wandering back to the kitchen for a drink. Her cup is brightly colored plastic, and it knocks loudly against the counter when she slams it there after finishing her Peppy Cola. Carly freezes, and waits for Mommy to yell from her room about being too loud, or to shift in bed and creak the springs, but nothing happens.
Years later, Carly will be forced to admit to herself that her mother felt some modicum of love for her.
After all, she reasons, holed up in the bedroom of the apartment Spencer switched to after the courts decided that he really was grown-up enough to have her, why else would her mother choose to leave on the one day a week Spencer came to visit, the day he brought so much food that she wouldn't have to leave the house and grocery shop with Carly in tow? She could have left any time, the day after Spencer, even, leaving Carly alone in a house with dwindling supplies of food and no idea how to reach her father on the Navy boat he occupied.
Carly admits that, yes, her mother must have loved her a little. But that still doesn't make up for the way Spencer looked at her when she started crying as soon as he flung open the door that night, typical dramatic entrance, sobbing about how Mommy won't come out and she missed school and she had a spelling test today and she's hungry for dinner. Any inkling of love pales against the one and only string of curse words she had ever and has ever heard Spencer whisper before he pasted a smile on his face and said, "Okay, okay, it's okay kiddo, I know what's going on. Here, let's get some dinner - look, we have, uh, taco shells, okay, um, here, we'll put this spaghetti in them! Sound good? Eat up, all right, okay, please, Carly?"
But she could not stop crying about missing school, and her tears only turned to sniffles when Spencer promised to call her teacher and explain. "Explain that Mommy slept too late?" Carly sniffed, biting her spaghetti taco and splattering sauce across her cheeks, and Spencer took one long second to nod and then fake-smile again.
Her mother's tiny scrap of love is worthless when Spencer was the one who tucked her in that night, even if that was weird because she was a big girl and could put herself to bed, had been doing it for months. And when she pressed her ear against her bedroom door after scrambling out from underneath her pink-and-white blanket, she could hear him whisper-yelling into the phone at Daddy, and then at her teacher, and then Daddy again, and then the police. The last phone call scared her so badly that she shook all over and had to back up so the door wouldn't rock with her, and when her heart stopped hurting so bad with fear she bent low and peered under the crack between door and floor.
Spencer was done with the police by then, the big men with shiny badges and flashing lights. She fell asleep there that night, curled against the slit of light, listening to her brother talk to his friend with a name like a sock and ask him where the nearest attorney's office was.
Her mother is in the back of her mind, now.
She flits through Carly's thoughts, of course – how could she not? But it is easy enough to push away the faint flickering memory of a dark-haired woman with brown eyes and the tiniest hands Carly had ever seen.
That woman, she reminds herself brushing out her long dark hair in front of the TV Girly Cow was playing on, did not want to be here in the first place. She did not want me to show her my A-plus history paper, she did not want to put up with my teenage attitude, she did not want to take me shopping or let me have sleepovers with my best friend or watch my web show.
The thought scrawls itself across the inside of her mind at the end of every iCarly, right before Sam says something demeaning to Freddie and they all go downstairs to comment on Spencer's latest sculpture, drinking Peppy Cola from bright plastic cups. She shoves it away each time, refusing to think that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the country, on the bright sandy beaches of Florida or in a tall bland skyscraper that juts out on the New York skyline, there is a woman with remarkably slender hands and a cigarette in her mouth because she just can't kick the habit, logging onto the website of the most popular web show in Washington.
But, Carly reminds herself, giving well-timed laughs at Sam's jokes and downing her Peppy Cola – that's just a fantasy.
This is what Carly Shay learned by the time she was seven years, zero months, and one day old, and that she can still remember now:
Spencer was her brother, but he was also fun, and so Amber-in-her-class was wrong and brothers really didn't have to be one or the other. He knew how to make scary movies on TV less scary by giving all the characters funny voices after she whimpered and threw her arms around his neck, burying her face there. He bought bath bubbles at the store and let her use it anytime she wanted, even though Mommy said big girls took showers, not baths. She got to talk to Daddy every week, because Spencer dialed the number for her and held the phone up to her ear (with Mommy, she was allowed to call whenever she wanted, but she could never remember all the numbers and Mommy got mad when she asked and huffed and puffed and closed the door to her room tight). They ate spaghetti tacos whenever she got a one hundred on her spelling tests, and sometimes he let her sit on the windowsill while he stood behind her, both of them blowing regular bubbles out into the open air.
Once, when they were doing that, Carly was so entranced by the pretty, clear blue color of the sky spreading out in every direction from the height of their apartment building that, in one instant in the middle of her fascination, her hand skidded off the edge of the sill – she was lurching forward before a scream could even climb up her throat. The whole world tilted, and then, just as suddenly, righted: Spencer was holding her around the waist, both of his hands clasped over her stomach.
It took her a moment to realize she was shaking. "I slipped," she said weakly, and then stared back up that the same blue sky that had caused her loss of balance, as though suddenly wary of its true intentions.
"I know, I caught you," Spencer joked, then mussed her hair, tangled from the wind. "Why do you think I always stand behind ya, kiddo? Easier to catch that way."
The blue was starting to burn the backs of her eyes. She turned her head to stare up at him, bearing her teeth in a smile and feeling the loose one wobble just a little. "You're good at catching me," she told him, laughing, and forgot about the beautiful, deceitful sky.