"Zack, I thought we had this talk the last time you brought home a report card," Carey said as she sat in the chair and looked over his grades. She leaned against the backrest and sighed. They had had this conversation before. Many times over the years. She picked up the piece of paper and waved it at him. "What are we going to do about this?"
"Get new teachers that don't hate me?" Zack told her and it was all she could do to not slap the hint of a smirk right off his face. This was serious and he treated it like a joke.
"I hardly think that's it. Teachers won't nearly fail you just because they don't like you."
"Mine will," Zack interrupted.
"I know for a fact that your social studies teacher adores you, Zack. She told me that when I talked to her after you failed your last test. She thinks you're a wonderful young man; witty, funny, and enjoyable to have in class. She also said that you put zero effort into most of your work and don't ever seem prepared for class-"
"I do try! I do! I..." Zack interrupted again.
"Not another word until I am finished, got that?" Carey snapped back, her finger jabbing in his direction. Zack nodded even though she could see a retort bubbling up on his lips. She took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Yelling at her sons, Zack in particular, never had much effect. Slightly more in control of herself, she continued.
"Maybe you don't understand the situation here, kid. You avoided summer school last year by the absolute skin of your teeth and you swore it wouldn't happen again. You promised you'd turn over a new leaf and buckle down and hit the books. You started off fine but you've gone down the toilet since winter break. You aren't looking at summer school this year, Zack. You're looking at repeating the seventh grade. Do you understand that? Same classes again next year while all of your friends move on to the eighth grade." She intentionally avoided mentioning Cody would move along, too, since comparing the two of them would be incredibly counterproductive.
"What are we going to do, Zack? I've already tried grounding you ten ways to Sunday. That didn't work. I've tried taking away every privilege I can think of and that hasn't worked either. Do you just not understand the work? I know you're not dyslexic, we've had you tested for that. Twice," she said as an idea popped into her head. "Do you need a tutor? Would that help? Maybe learn things a little differently?" Carey waited for him to reply but he remained silent. "You may speak now," she said when she realized he actually listened to her for a change.
"It might, Mom. It may seem like I don't always try in Mrs. Watson's class but I do. I swear I do." Zack's voice seemed honest, Carey noticed, not full of the bull that he usually tried to sell her when they had talks like this. She was pleased with this and only slightly annoyed that it took something like potentially failing a grade to make him realize the gravity of the situation.
"Okay. I'll look into it and see what we can do. You have to promise me though, if we go through with this, that you'll do your absolute best. No halfways or partials."
"I promise, Mom!" Zack almost jumped out of his chair with his earnestness. He looked like a much younger version of himself at that moment.
"Good." Carey scooted the chair back and stood up.
"So am I grounded?"
"That depends. Are you going to get your books right now and bring them to this table and study your little blonde head off until I have to leave for work?" Carey was open for any option that would get Zack at the books since confining him to his room hadn't worked since he was around four years old.
"Then you aren't. For now." Zack got up and zipped to his room and began the arduous search for all his books.
Carey pushed her chair in and walked to the couch and collapsed. She stared at the ceiling for a bit before she pulled Cody's laptop from the table and flipped it on. Once it warmed up, she logged into the special mom account Cody had created and smiled at the icon he chose for her. A few seconds later she was on Google and searching for reputable tutors.
"Sweet Jesus," she muttered as she scanned the prices. Carey imagined her purse opening up and her wallet floating just above it with twenty dollar bills flying out at a rapid pace until there was only lint, an ancient peppermint, and an empty gum wrapper left in it. "I'll make it work. Somehow."
"Give that back, Zack!" Cody screeched as his brother took the pamphlet from his hands.
"What's this? Nerd camp? Oh they probably have a room reserved with your name on it. I can see it now." Zack spread his hands like he'd had an epiphany. "The door says 'Cody Martin, Head Dork," Zack said as he offered it back.
"It's not nerd camp, Zack. It's science camp. Where the smart kids go," he said as he snatched it from his brother's hand. "Not like the Future Burger Flippers of America Camp where you'll end up going."
"Why you!" Zack said as he lunged at Cody.
"Hey hey hey knock it off," Carey exclaimed as she strode into the living room. "What's going on here? You've been home from school for a whole twenty seconds and you're already at each other's throats."
"Zack took my camp paper and wouldn't give it back."
"I did not!" Zack said indignantly as he poured a look of innocence over his face.
"Okay, whatever," Carey said. "Zack, go start your homework. Cody, show me what you have." Zack walked off and Cody pulled the paper from behind his back.
"It's a thing for a science camp this summer," he told her, "and it sounds awesome."
"Oh yeah? What sort of things will they be doing?"
"More like what won't we be doing, Mom. Here, look." Cody unfolded the paper and spread it out on the table. He pointed to the various pictures and gave long-winded explanations of what each one entailed. "That one shows how we'll be making molecular hydrogen ."
Carey noticed how Cody used we instead of they. He hadn't yet asked if he could go, though she knew that was coming, but it was already firm in his mind that he was. She watched his face as he told her about another aspect of the camp. She rarely saw him this excited about anything. If he smiled any harder, his face might break.
"That sounds pretty neat, Cody. When is it?"
"It starts the week after school lets out. That's six weeks and three days from now, Mom," he informed her.
"It sounds like it was made for you."
"I know! It's the kind of stuff that I've always wanted to do but can't since our school is full of kids that would eat a block of potassium if it was put in front of them."
"That's not a good thing, I take it?"
"Not unless you like having your mouth explode."
"No, not really."
"So can I go?"
"You really want to go? Two whole weeks away from your brother..."
"That part is just a bonus, Mom. Icing on the cake." Cody's eyes drifted off and she imagined him seeing a room full of expensive lab equipment and not having to worry about his brother breaking any of it. She had already decided that she'd find a way to make it work out for him. The cost didn't matter, not since he asked for so little. Her eyes finally found the box with the prices and whistled silently. Not quite as bad as she was expecting but two hundred dollars bought a lot of cereal and bologna.
"Yes, honey, you can go."
"Thanks, Mom!" he threw his arms around her and gave her a warm hug.
"You're welcome." she hugged him back and watched as he all but floated across the carpet to their room. She'd find a way. Those new shoes would have to wait. Again. Nail polish was a good way to cover up scuffs and scratches.
"What's wrong, kiddo?" Carey asked when she came in the door and saw Cody moping. He was usually upbeat and to see him leaning against the kitchen counter with his arms crossed and shoulders shrugged struck her as odd.
"Nothing," he replied and she could see him force a smile on his face. "How are you, Mom?"
Ah, the vintage Cody was already back, she saw, skillfully deflecting anything he didn't want to talk about by asking her questions. Very well, she'd play along for now. "Not too bad. I decided we should eat tonight so I got some food from the grocery and brought it home." She set the bag on the counter and Cody began digging through it.
"I think I can make something out of all this," he said as he began putting some of the items away and leaving the ones he was going to use on the counter.
"You do realize that I actually can cook, right?"
"Of course you can, Mom," Cody smiled. "It's just that we're growing boys and we like to eat when you're done and sometimes, well..."
"Okay, I get it, I get it." Carey stepped out of the way and let her son get to work. She took up a spot on the couch and flipped the television on and split her attention between it and Cody. Something was bothering him. It was obvious in the way he was taking extra satisfaction with every slice of the knife and the malice with which he washed the lettuce. She covered a frown with her hand. Whatever was bothering her son was going to pay. She'd see to it personally.
A short while later she cornered Zack in his room and shut the door behind her. He was laying on his bed with a Spiderman comic opened and laying over his math book. "I didn't do it," he said when he saw her sit on Cody's bed. "I mean I'm doing it now." He quickly made the comic book vanish under his pillow and a pencil magically appear in his hand.
"You can relax, Zack. I'm not here to yell at you." For a change, she added to herself.
"Oh." He was genuinely surprised. That isn't usually how this situation worked. "So, um...what's up?"
"What's going on with your brother?"
"I...don't know?" He absently tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. Carey instantly spotted his tell and knew he was lying.
"Zack, he's in the kitchen right now chopping onions like he's cutting someone's head off. Something is bothering him."
Zack rolled over on his side and looked like he was weighing many options. His eyes went to the door to be sure it was closed. "It's school."
"You're going to have to be a little more specific than that," she told him.
Zack sighed and broke the Brother Rule. "He's being picked on by a kid that's in a few of our classes." He watched as his mother's face went hard and her eyebrows furrowed.
"I'm going down there first thing in the morning and put a stop to it. He shouldn't have to deal with that."
"Mom, no," Zack begged, "that's the last thing you need to do."
"Excuse me? No one picks on you boys except each other."
"You don't get it, do you?"
"No, apparently not. Will you explain to me how I'm so wrong?" Carey sat back and waited.
"It's like this. You go down there tomorrow and tell the principal and Tommy...crap...the kid will be called down to the office and get talked to. Then he'll tell everyone that Cody went and told his mommy about him and it'll just get worse. Do you get it now?"
Carey pursed her lips as she thought about what he'd just said. "I do but I think that is completely ridiculous."
"You can't do it."
"Has this Tommy kid laid a hand on him? Because if he has I don't care and will go down there and snap him like a twig in the lunch room in front of everybody."
"No, he hasn't."
"Mom, come on. Like you said, no one gets to hit Cody but me. I told him that if he so much as touched Cody, I'd rearrange his face for him. So I've got that part of it covered but I'm not with Cody for all our classes so..."
Carey wasn't satisfied. "So what am I supposed to do about it? I'm not going to sit back and let him be unhappy because some other kid hasn't got the beating he needs."
"Two things. One, forget this talk ever happened and never mention it to Cody. Two, I'm trying to get Cody to stand up to him but so far he won't do it."
"Okay. One is good for now but if he touches Cody I'm still going down there and breaking him in half. Two...Fine. I don't like it but he does need to learn to stand up for himself." She frowned, not happy with the way the conversation turned out.
"So are we done here?"
"Yes. You may return to your Spiderman now. Until after dinner. Then it's homework time."
The next few hours found Cody in both good and sad moods. They'd come and go with no regularity and it hurt her to know that her son was hurting.
They'd eaten together, something that was happening much more infrequently than Carey would like, and then she began preparing herself for work. She slid a dress on and put on just enough makeup to enhance instead of cover and left her boys for the night.
The crowd was settling in for the second show of the night and Carey was sitting nervously behind the stage. She fixed her hair for the thousandth time, trying to put Cody's problems out of her mind. She'd made it through the first show with no problems but it was a livelier set list than she had planned for the second. Her name was announced and she stepped through the curtain to a room of polite applause. "Here we go," she whispered as she reached for the mic.
She'd closed the second set with an old Fleetwood Mac song, something she'd sang a hundred times before, but this time she actually felt the words she was singing. Carey put the mic back in its holder and waved to the crowd when she was finished and took a small bow. She was sitting in her dressing room when Moseby came by and knocked on the door frame.
"I was just passing by when you were finishing your set, Carey, and I have to say that I was very impressed tonight. I've always thought you sang well but tonight you sounded incredible."
"I channeled some of my inner family drama tonight, Marion."
"Well whatever it was I hope it keeps up," he said with a wink, "our bar sales were up almost twenty percent tonight. I'm kidding, of course. About the drama keeping up. I hope that stops." Moseby looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"Thanks, Marion," she replied as she took her earrings off. He smiled and trotted off and left her to her thoughts. "I guess I'll add a bit more to those sales before I go back upstairs," she thought as she stood up and walked over to the bar, a finger raised as soon as she made eye contact with the bartender. There was a martini waiting for her when she sat down.
"You boys do realize we are lucky enough to have this amazing new invention called a hamper, right?" Carey called from the bathroom as she picked up yet another soggy towel from the tiled floor. "And how many showers have guys taken today, anyway? I swear this is the fifth time I've done this since I got up."
"I had to take one when I got back from the skate park, Mom. I was kinda smelly," Zack poked his head in the bathroom.
"You took one before you went to the skate park!"
"I know. I had to make sure I looked and smelled good before I went down there." Carey threw the towel at him. He laughed and ducked out of the way in plenty of time. She shook her head and picked it up again, along with a double handful of socks and underwear and t-shirts and deposited them all in the hamper
"I only took one," Cody told her when she came out and gave him a look. "I did forget to pick up my clothes, though. Sorry. Zack was beating on the door to hurry me out."
"One of these days I'm going to go on strike," she said to no one in particular. "You two will be walking on piles of laundry and stacks of trash in no time. It'll be like an episode of Hoarders in here. Guys in haz-mat suits and filter masks with grain shovels and hundreds of overflowing garbage bags."
"Gross," Cody said. "It wouldn't get that bad."
"Ummhmm," Carey mumbled as she started walking around the living room on a quest to find rogue socks and whatever other clothes may have buried themselves under chairs or cushions. "Should I even ask how this got underneath the couch?" She waggled a pair of striped underwear at her youngest son. "I'm curious but I'm not sure I really want to know."
"All I know," Cody told her, "is that those aren't mine."
"How are you so sure?"
"Because they were under the couch."
"That is an acceptable answer," Carey grinned. Cody smiled back and almost simultaneously their expressions turned sour as they imagined Zack sitting naked on the couch.
"I need to Lysol the couch now," Carey said as she took a step back.
"Or just burn it."
"Or that." She just shook her head. Boys.
"You are doing laundry today, right?"
"I wasn't planning on it. Why?"
"I was kind of hoping you were because I was hoping I could have my red sweater washed for school tomorrow."
"Can't you wear something else? You've got to have at least twenty sweaters in your closet and I bet that no fewer than five of them are red."
"I do, but I was hoping I could wear that one for the chess match. It's my lucky cardigan."
"Fine," Carey sighed. "I'll do a load. Thank you, Mom."
"Thank you, Mom," Cody echoed sheepishly.
Carey continued on around the suite and picked up anything colored that wasn't in a drawer and dumped it in a basket. She checked her watch and swore under her breath. "Cody, do you think you can switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer? I have to get my hair cut before I look any more like a shaggy dog than I already do and my appointment is in half an hour."
"Sorry, Mom. I'm meeting up with some kids from class at the library, remember? We need to work on our social studies project," he hold her as he zipped up his backpack.
Carey had just begun to ask Zack when he rushed by in a blond blur. "SorryMomI'mheadingtoEric'shouseI'llbehomefordinnerloveyou," he said and was out the door before she could blink.
"Right," she said as she set the basket on the counter and picked up the phone. "Hey Maria, it's Carey. What are the odds of you getting me in tomorrow instead of today?"
Carey was on the couch, legs out and feet propped on the coffee table, with the laptop sitting on her thighs. It was payday in the Martin household and that meant that her money was already almost gone before she laid a finger on any of it. She logged into her bank account and looked at her balance, thinking that she should take a picture because in a few minutes hardly any of it would be there. Carey reached to her left and picked up the rocks glass from the table. She took a small drink of the creamy chocolate-colored liquid and let it roll around on her tongue before swallowing and replacing the glass.
Carey clicked pay bills and the computer brought up her list of monthly outlays. She shook her head when the thought that the list was longer than her hair ran through her mind. Car payment. Click. Car insurance. Click. Cell phone. Click. Click. Click. Click.
The top of the pagegave her a real-time view of her available balance and she sighed as each click decreased it like the altimeter of a plane spiraling into the ground. Another sip from the glass and she savored the warmth as it slid down her throat and into her stomach. She spun the ice around and watched as the meltwater in the Bailey's swirled and eddied.
If Kurt forgets to send the check again we'll be eating ramen noodles by the end of the month, she thought. She frowned and pushed the laptop onto the couch and leaned back with her hands behind her head. If he does, I'm going to have to take him to court. No ifs, ands, or buts about it this time. That will be...messy. Carey sighed and drained the glass.
"So I bet you're wondering why I asked you to meet me here, right, Carey?" her agent asked as she took a sip from a steaming latte. They were sitting in a small coffee shop a few blocks from the Tipton and she had been hoping he wouldn't waste time with small talk. Good ol' Tom, always right to business.
"I won't lie, Tom, I've been a little curious since you called last night. I'm hoping that you're bringing me good news and not telling me that you're raising your rates on me again," she told him.
"No, it's not that. But we might need to discuss it if you say yes to what I'm about to tell you."
"Good news, then?"
"Not just good news, great news!"
Carey leaned forward in her chair and pushed the cup away. Her interest was piqued. "So you are going to tell me this great news, aren't you?" she asked after he hesitated.
"Okay, okay. I was trying to build up a little drama before I told you but fine. A drum roll would be nice, though."
"Seriously?" Carey laughed and begrudgingly gave him one on the glass table.
"So here it is. Are you sitting down?"
"Tom...Cut the shit and tell me already." Talking to her agent always reminded her of talking to a much older, chubbier, balding version of Zack.
"Right." He pushed his comb-over back into place and took a breath. "Remember that demo tape you gave me about a year ago? I think it was a year. Maybe two."
"It was three and yes I remember."
"Three? Are you sure? Of course you're sure," he told her when she raised an eyebrow and gave him The Look. "Well, I've been passing it around and around and around and had all but forgotten about it until I got a call from a studio yesterday. Carey, I got you a job as a back up singer for a major label out in Hollywood!" His face lit up like a Christmas tree, he raised his arms wide, and had a huge grin on his face. "You aren't hugging me right now," he said through his smile after she didn't react anything like he was expecting. "Why aren't you hugging me?"
Carey sighed and instantly wished the cafe had something to toughen up her latte with. A slug of Jack, maybe. "Tom, it's not that I'm not happy or excited, because I really am, but I don't think I can take that job even if I wanted to."
"Sure you can, Carey. I can have them fax the contract over here in two minutes and all you have to do is scribble your name where it says I, the undersigned or however they word it."
Carey's mind was churning at a million miles an hour and she took almost fifteen seconds before answering. "I can't."
"Wow," Tom said, obviously stunned. This was not how agent-client negotiations usually went. Carey was supposed to be crying tears of joy right now and he was supposed to be tasting his commission check. "Can you at least tell me why you can't? Because if it's money I'm sure we can work something out. Cost of living? A good school for your boys? I can take care of all that."
"It's not anything like that." Carey took a sip from her cup and found the latte now tasted sour. "It's my kids, Tom."
"You can take them, too, Carey. I made sure they knew about your boys. They still want you."
"No, that's not it. I can't move them across the country again. This is the first time since the divorce that they've gone to the same school for more than one year. They've actually made friends here."
"Hey now, kids are elastic. They'll be fine. They'll adapt."
"I know they will, Tom. They'll adapt just fine like they always have. But the thing is, I don't know if I want them to have to adapt again. I've bounced them around like Superballs for long enough. They're happy here."
"So just let me get this straight." He pushed his thinning hair off his forehead. "You're telling me that you are willingly turning down a job paying almost three times what you're making now and doing exactly what you told me you always wanted to do because of your kids."
"I guess that's exactly what I'm telling you. If this was five years ago I'd jump all over that deal but now I can't."
"I can't tell you that's a very good career move, Carey." He looked around the room in disbelief. "Can't they go live with their dad or something?"
Carey's eyes flashed and Tom instinctively moved back in his chair. "Absolutely not. I wouldn't let you go live with Kurt."
"Probably not quite as bad as I think it would be but I like waking up knowing for certain that my kids won't be eating McDonald's for breakfast, Burger King for lunch, and whatever the greasy special is at some disgusting truck stop for dinner in a different city every day."
They were both quiet for a few moments. Tom swirled his coffee around its mug and tried, unsuccessfully, to come to terms with the last few minutes. "Well, I guess we're about done here, Carey." He waved the waitress over and asked for their check. "I don't suppose there's any reason to ask you to at least sleep on it tonight, is there?" He slid his credit card into the small book and handed it back.
"As much as I'd like to say I will, no. Like I said, if it was five years ago or maybe five years in the future when they're off at college, I'd take it." Or when at least one of them is off at college, she added to herself.
"I'll keep my ears open for you, Carey," he told her as he took his card and receipt back from the waitress. His tone told her that he believed she had made a huge mistake. He signed the check and stood up and thanked her for her time. He ducked down to give her a kiss on the cheek as he passed and headed for the door.
Carey reached for her cup again as the door shut behind him and stayed her hand. She leaned back and crossed her legs, her default heavy-thinking position, and pondered exactly what she'd done.
Carey hated her shoes. They were some sort of blue and tan abomination, something right out of Frankenstein. And they had Velcro, she noticed as soon as she picked them up from the counter. She scowled at them and kept her face a respectable distance away just in case these were a pair of the really stinky ones. She slipped her good shoes off and stepped into the bowling shoes with a grimace. It's a shame I can't wear my heels. I'd look so much better, she mused to herself as she stood up and stretched. And then instantly fall and break my ass, Carey snorted as she picked up her ball.
Loud music dueled with the sound of pins flying and a million other conversations while the disco balls showered the darkened lanes with multicolored light. Carey held the bowling ball in her right hand and shifted it around until it felt perfect. A few feet behind her the boys were laughing at something and she couldn't help but wonder what it was. Probably her. Carey took a deep breath and concentrated, focusing on each step to the line one-two-three-slide and then the snap of her wrist. The ball was spinning dangerously close to the gutter before it hooked just enough back into the cluster of pins to knock them all down.
She spun on a worn heel and raised her arms in jubilation before her twins and smiled at the groans she could see on their faces. "I am the queen of glow bowl!" Carey shouted, punctuating her words with a fist pump as she trotted back to the chairs. "You may now bow before your queen."
"Relax, Mom, that was only the first frame," Zack laughed. "You still have nine more to go."
"Yeah, you don't want to wear your arm out patting yourself on the back just yet!" Cody told her.
"Doesn't matter," she replied. "I got a strike. Even if I gutter the rest of the time, I still got a strike." She pumped her arm one more time.
"Yeah, what a great victory that would be," Cody told her and shook his head. "Carey Martin, queen of the first frame!" Cody wasn't fast enough to move out of the way as she sat beside him and dug her fingers into his ticklish flanks. He squirmed his way to the floor and crawled to the balls, eyes looking back over his shoulder and with a huge smile on his face.
Cody threw his ball and watched with his hands on his hips as it trailed from the center of the lane toward the edge, hanging on just long enough to take out a single pin. He turned around and gave a shrug of his shoulders to his mother and brother and then broke out in a wide grin. His ball came back up onto the rack and he threw it again, adding an impressive amount of body English to try to keep it on the wood, and knocked down one more pin.
"Your queen is not impressed, young man," Carey quipped.
"Maybe we should get you bumpers or something," Zack told him as he put a comforting hand on his brother's shoulder. "You could bounce the ball down the lane like Plinko." Cody joined their mother on the bench as Zack approached the rack. Zack smirked and hefted his ball as stepped onto the smooth wood, shaking his rump for the group of girls in the lane beside them. One of them giggled and he winked back. He started his approach with a blush rising in his cheeks and a desire to impress.
Cody waited until Zack was in full back swing and yelled out Fart! to distract him and it worked brilliantly. Zack's ball hopped into the gutter after about ten feet and spun furiously until came to a stop at the back of the lane. The pins were picked up and the sweeper arm swept away empty space before setting all ten back down again. He spun around on his heels and gave his brother the stare of death and nearly held it straight faced until he saw Cody and his mother in peels of laughter.
"That's how it's going to be, huh?" Zack asked, covering his mouth before he joined them.
"Yes sir, Captain Gutterball," Cody replied with a salute before he buried his head in his mother's side.
And it was on. For the next nine frames nothing was illegal or out of bounds. Jokes were made and distractions were used to grand effect. Nachos were devoured and extremely overpriced but gigantic sodas were enjoyed. Their scores inched up incredibly slowly but none of the three cared. At one point all three were nearly doubled over in tears after some lame joke was repeated for the twentieth time.
"You know," Carey told them as they piled their shoes on the counter as they were leaving, "history will show that I lost tonight..."
"Badly," Zack interjected.
"...Yeah, okay, badly. But I think we all know who the best bowler was tonight: Me! Carey Martin, Queen of Glow Bowl!" both of her sons booed and laughed their way out of the bowling alley and back toward the Tipton. They walked three abreast down the sidewalk, Carey in the middle with her arms around both her boys, more than a little surprised but not complaining that neither of them shrugged out of her embrace.
It's time like these, she told herself as they turned the corner and saw the steps of the hotel come into view, that they're worth it. Carey pulled them into a hug as they walked up and into the lobby. No matter what they put me through, they're worth it.
I've been working on this story for months now, adding bits and pieces here and there and completely rewriting entire sections until it finally came together. I don't think I've ever wanted to get a story as "right" as I did this one. I wanted to show a different side of Carey than the usual absent mother or tyrant (both of which I've seen waaaay too many times) and I think I've done her justice. I hope so, anyway. Let me know.