She stood at the door, watching the burning, familiar sight of someone she loved walk away. “River.”
He muttered, “I’ll call you,” and then disappeared through the dark courtyard.
BUT RIVER DIDN’T call. Jess stayed up until almost three, alternating between watching TV and checking her phone. Finally she fell asleep propped awkwardly against her pillows, waking to find the TV still on and her phone still empty of messages.
She was in a terrible mood by the time the morning routine began.
“Juno, I’m trying to make your lunch. Can you leave the cat alone and get dressed? Now, please.”
Juno pouted from where she was crouched on the carpet waving one of Pigeon’s toy feathers back and forth. “I don’t know what to wear.”
“You had clothes out last night. And bring me your dishes, Bug.”
“But we have PE today, and I want to wear leggings.”
Jess swore her kid had some sort of radar that zeroed in on exactly how short her Mom Fuse was on any given day, and then turned lighting it into an Olympic sport. “So wear leggings.”
“I don’t know where they are.”
“You have at least ten pairs of them.”
“I want the black ones with the stars.”
“Did you put them in the laundry?” Jess reached for the grapes in the fridge and tucked a bunch into Juno’s lunch box. Her phone was facedown on the counter, but she left it untouched. Looking would only make her feel worse.
Juno rolled around on the floor, squealing as the cat began chewing on the ends of her hair. “I think so.”
“Then look in the dryer.” Jess threw in a cup of applesauce, a bag of carrot sticks, and the last tube of yogurt, making a mental note to go to the store.
“Can you get them for me?” More laughing, more squealing. No getting dressed.
“Juno!” Jess yelled. Her voice was so loud it startled even her.
Quietly, Juno pushed herself up and skulked out of the room.
Frantically, Jess wiped down the counter and closed the refrigerator door so hard it bounced back open. Another glance at her watch. Shit. The dryer door slammed and a startled cat bolted down the hall, jumping on the coffee table and knocking over Juno’s half-eaten bowl of cereal. Milk and soggy Rice Krispies dripped slowly to the floor.
“How many times do I need to tell you no food in the living room!”
“It was Pigeon’s fault!”
“Get dressed!” Her voice seemed to echo through the suddenly silent apartment.
Juno’s bottom lip jutted out and she stomped into her room again. Jess dropped onto the couch, exhausted. It was barely eight.
They walked to school in tense silence; Juno was mad, but not nearly as mad as Jess was at herself. She cycled through memories of Jamie having an argument with whatever man she was with at the time and taking it out on Jess or Nana or Pops.
Jess was in a shame spiral by the time they reached the monkey bars.
Needing to fix this, Jess crouched on the grass in front of Juno. “You have your outline for the art fair?”
She nodded but didn’t meet Jess’s eyes, instead focusing on the playground over her mom’s shoulder. Her little forehead was so grumpy.
“And your lunch is in your backpack?”
Another curt nod.
“I’m sorry I yelled this morning. I didn’t get enough sleep and woke up in a bad mood. I should have counted to ten.”
“Can Pops pick me up after school?”
Betrayal was a sharp knife twisting in her chest. “He’ll be with Nana Jo at rehabilitation. I don’t have any meetings, so I get to pick you up today.”
“Can River Nicolas instead?”
The knife pushed in deeper. It wasn’t that Juno wanted someone specific, it was that she specifically didn’t want Jess. Jess knew that it was irrational to feel hurt—Juno was mad, and this was what mad kids did—but being a shitty mom this morning was the last thing Jess’s heart needed. How could she say that she had no idea where River would be after school? Or next week? Or next year?
If she were Jamie, she would either show up later today with a present two years too young for Jess’s interests or call Jess a brat and not show up at all. I am not my mom. Jess wrapped her little girl in a hug. “I’ll ask him, but either way, I’ll be here at pickup,” she said. “I love you the mostest.”
Juno softened in her arms. “I love you the mostest, too.”
FIZZY AND SHE had been sitting at their table at Twiggs for twenty minutes, but Jess had yet to log into her computer.
“Earth to Jess.”
She tore her eyes away from the window. “Sorry, what?”
“I was asking about Nana.”
“Right.” Jess looked down at the frothy top of her untouched flat white. “She’s doing okay. Better than okay, actually. She has out-patient PT every day for a couple weeks. They’re working on strengthening exercises and putting some weight on that leg. Her bone density is good, so they aren’t too worried about the pins shifting. She’s a lightning bolt on that scooter.”
“He’s happier now that she’s home with him,” Jess said flatly. “He’s charmed most of the staff at the rehab facility, so of course gets whatever he wants.”
“Let me find my surprised face,” Fizzy said, and then went quiet and still across from Jess as she turned her phone over and glanced at the screen. Nothing. “Do you want to tell me what’s with you today?”
Fizzy smiled. “Jess. My bestie intuition is god tier, level five thousand, the top one percent. You think I can’t tell when something’s off? Are you worried about Nana or those children of the corn in Juno’s class?”
Jess laughed for the first time all day. The problem was that she couldn’t talk about this. Not only wasn’t it her problem to share, she wasn’t even sure how big the problem was.
“I’m fine, just slept like crap and snapped a little at Juno this morning.” Lifting her cup to her lips, she asked, “Any update on Rob?”
“I’m sure he’s tried to call,” Fizzy said, “but I blocked him. From my phone, Insta, Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok, Twitter, and …” She lifted her phone, tapped the screen a few times, and added, “LinkedIn.”
“You have all those?”
Fizzy shrugged, tearing off a piece of muffin.
Jess reached across the table to take Fizzy’s free hand. “Do you think you’ll see any more of your matches?”
“Who knows. My social boner is pretty limp right now.”
“That sentence makes so much sense.”
The bell rang over the door, and Jess’s attention flew toward the sound. River. She glanced at her phone. It was well past nine. He was late.
Bypassing the front counter, he walked straight toward their table. His hair was a bit more mussed than usual, and his eyes looked heavy and red, but his clothes were pressed, his posture perfect. Jess hated how quickly her traitorous body wanted to forget about his abrupt departure yesterday, his lack of communication, and just stand up and step into his arms.
“Hey,” he said to her, and then turned to Fizzy. “I heard about the asshole.”