Night Road

Page 22

"That's not fair," Zach said. "You can't-"
"Stop," Jude hissed, holding up a hand. She looked shell-shocked, a little dazed. "I don't understand. Talk to us, Zach."
"Zach," Mia said, frowning. "You won't go to school with me?"
"I can't leave her," he said, looking miserable.
"And you can leave me? Me?" Mia said, starting to cry.
"No. I want you to come with us. I said that," Zach answered. "Come on, Mia-"
"What choice do I have?" Mia cried, looking from Zach to Lexi. "I guess this is you being my friend, too, huh?" Then she ran for the stairs.
Zach followed his sister from the room and up the stairs.
Lexi felt Jude's gaze on her, judging her, blaming her, and Lexi felt a rush of shame. This family had done so much for her, given her so much, and now she was to blame for this. It took all her courage to look up into Jude's disappointed face. "Don't be mad at me," she whispered, wringing her hands. "Please."
"You don't understand what you've done," Jude said. Her voice was shaky and her face was pale.
"I didn't do anything. It's not my fault."
"Isn't it?"
"I didn't tell him to do this … to want this."
"Think of Mia instead of Zach. Instead of yourself. You know how talented she is, and how shy. How would it be if the three of you lived together-really. How long before you and Zach started to ignore her?"
"That would never happen."
"Really? It looks as if it just did." Jude paused; her face seemed to soften at that. "I'm sorry. I hate to tangle you up in all of this. But if they don't go to USC they'll regret it, and sooner or later they'll blame you."
Lexi hated the truth she heard in those words.
"Talk to them," Jude said, clutching Miles's hand so tightly her fingers were white.
Lexi wanted to say no, at least to be uncertain about what to do, but she wasn't. Some courses of action were obvious. She had done the wrong thing once before, risked her friendship with Mia and her place in this family. Then, as now, love and longing had blinded her. It was a mistake she refused to repeat.
She turned her back on Miles and Jude and made her way across the room-bigger suddenly, an endless sea crossing-and went up the stairs. They were in Mia's room, standing like a pair of matched statues, staring at each other.
"Hey," Lexi said.
They turned at the same time, wearing identical expressions.
"I wish I were stronger," Mia said.
"You're stronger than you think," Lexi said, moving into the room. Zach reached out for her but she sidestepped him. "But that's not what this is about."
Mia started to cry. "I've dreamed of USC for so long."
"You could go by yourself," Zach said, and Lexi loved him for saying it, but she heard the crack in his voice, saw the regret already filling his gaze.
"I'd kill to go to USC," Lexi said quietly. "I'd give anything." She swallowed, looked from one face to the next, struck by how alike they were, mirror images. "You guys can't give up everything just because I don't have it. I won't let you."
She could see how hurt Zach was by her words, and how relieved. She drew in a shaky breath. Yes, he loved her. But he loved his sister, too, and he wanted to make his parents proud, and to secure his future. All of that, he could do at USC. Lexi forced a smile. "Enough of this. You two are going to USC. I'll be rocking SCC. We'll see each other every vacation."
"We have a whole month at Christmas," Mia said. At another time she might have smiled, but now she looked as broken as Lexi felt. Was this adulthood, this pruning of dreams to be practical?
"We'll miss you," Mia said. Zach just stood there, looking pissed and relieved and a little desperate. Cornered.
"It won't change anything," Lexi said, and they all knew it was a lie.
The decision had been made. There was nothing more to say.
For the next few days, Jude felt a little unsteady, adrift. A bullet had been dodged, there was no doubt about that. Lexi had somehow convinced Zach to follow through on the plans that had been made. It should have been a more than satisfactory conclusion, and it was, but like all compromises, something had been lost by everyone. There was a fissure in this house now, a resentment that was new. Jude couldn't remember when Zach had been so angry at her. Zach, her pliable, lovable boy, had become a surly, angry teenager who slouched in his chair and mumbled his sentences. He was pissed at his sister and his mother-and maybe at Lexi, who knew?-and he wanted everyone to know it.
Jude had tried to give him space. In the days since the blowup, she'd walked carefully around him, treated him with exaggerated care, but the price to her was high. She simply couldn't stand being on the outs with her children. Last night, she'd hardly slept at all for worrying about it. Instead she'd lain in bed, staring up at the ceiling, envisioning one conversation after another. In her imaginings, she and Zach always ended up laughing about their differences … and he rededicated himself to USC and his sister. Sometimes he even finished with, I know how young we are, Madre, don't worry so much, it's cool, thanks …
Now, she stood at her bedroom window, staring out at her backyard as evening fell across the water .
Tonight was the last big high school party of the year-the grad barbeque. Truth be told, she didn't want to let them go. There was so much unresolved between them, so many things to discuss, but she knew nothing would be solved tonight. And if she denied them this party, they'd never speak to her again. But tomorrow. Tomorrow they were going to work through all this drama and get back on track. This was their last year together; she'd be damned if they'd spend it like strangers.
"Mom?" Mia said, knocking at her bedroom door and opening it wide. "Can I talk to you?"
That was fast becoming a dangerous sentence. Jude turned, forced a smile. "Of course, honey."
Mia looked beautiful in the bright late-afternoon light. She was dressed for the party in a pair of ragged, cutoff jeans with carefully placed holes, a tight white T-shirt, and a vintage men's paisley vest that hung off her slim shoulders. Her hair had been drawn back from her face in a loose ponytail; several red metallic baby barrettes held the tiny wisps out of her eyes. "You look sad."
"I'm fine."
Mia came up beside Jude, put an arm around her waist, and leaned against her. Side by side, supported by each other, they stared out the window. "He loves her, Mom."
"What does that-"
Mia turned, tilted her face up. "He loves her."
Jude fell silent. For the first time, the words actually resonated. Love. All this time she'd minimized it, trimmed its sails because of their age. She'd told herself they were too young to understand their own lives. But it was true, their love; it might not last, but it was real.
"I'm breaking them up, making him go to school with me, and you know what the worst part is? They've stuck with me."
Jude touched her daughter's cheek, seeing the pain in Mia's eyes. This daughter of hers was so sensitive. "Of course they have. They'll always be there for you."
"I need to be there for them, too. That's the point."
"You are."
"I'm not going to USC, Mom. The three of us can go to community college and get an apartment."
"If you and Dad won't pay for it, we'll get jobs. It's the right thing to do, Madre. You always said nothing mattered more than love and family. Did you mean it?"
"Mia, we've paid deposits, made commitments. It's not this simple. You can't just-"
The sound of footsteps in the hallway interrupted them. Zach came into the room. "There you are, Mia. It's time to go."
"Mom and I are talking," Mia said.
Zach rolled his eyes. "Just tell her you'll do what she wants. That's the A answer for team Farraday."
"That's not fair, Zach," Jude said. She felt unsettled, as if everything was unspooling around her, falling free, rolling away, and she couldn't find anything to hold onto.
"Fair?" Zach said. "Is that what matters now? You used to say you wanted us to be happy, but that's only true when we do what you want us to do." He looked at Mia. "Let's go. We have to pick up Lexi, and I don't want to be late to the party." On that, he turned his back on them and strode out of the room.
"Gotta go, Madre." Mia gave Jude a last, sad smile, and followed her brother.
"Wait," Jude called out, hurrying after her daughter, following her to the front door. Outside, she could see the Mustang, hear its engine roar to life.
"We'll talk tomorrow," Jude said to Mia. "This decision about USC is not made."
"Yes, it is." Mia gave her a bright smile. "Forgive me?"
"No. I do not forgive you," Jude said. "And sweet talking won't work this time. This isn't over. You have to think about your futures."
"I'm sorry, Mom, but it kinda is. Love you," Mia gave Jude a kiss on the cheek and then ran out to the car.
"I want you home by one o'clock," Jude said, following her daughter. It was too small, not really what she wanted to say at all, but it was all she had now. Tomorrow they would have a serious talk, all three of them. "At one-o-two, I'm calling the police or driving over."
At the car, Mia hugged her mother fiercely. "We'll be home," she promised.
"And no drinking," Jude said. She leaned down to see her son through the car window. "Zach, you're the designated driver. No matter what. That's our deal."
"I know," he said tightly.
She had to add: "If anything happens-"
"Yeah, yeah," Zach said. "We'll call home for a ride. Come on, Mia. Lexi's waiting."
"Be home by one," Jude said again, stepping back, watching them drive off. "I mean it," she said, but there was no one beside her to hear the words.
* * *
Driving too fast, music blaring through the car, Zach turned onto Night Road. Lexi slid into the car door at every hairpin turn.
"Slow down," Mia yelled from the backseat, but Zach just cranked up the music. "Yeah," by Usher was at the edge of pain.… got so caught up I forgot …
When they got to the party, there were already more than a dozen cars parked in the clearing.
Zach pulled the key out of the ignition and dropped it in the well between the seats. "I need something to drink," he said, getting out of the car.

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