The Soulmate Equation

Page 64

He searched her eyes for a long beat before bending to deliver a quick peck on her cheek. After jogging back inside to pick up his Americano, he didn’t stop at their table again on the way out the door.


STANDING IN VONS the next evening, Jess looked up from her grocery list and realized Juno was still staring at the half mile of cereal options. “Junebug, can you pick one? We still have to drive home, unload this, and get you bathed and into bed.” Jess glanced at her watch, dreading the amount of work she still had to do when she got home. With her nights suddenly River-free, she should have been all caught up, with plenty of time to spare. And yet. Her focus had been terrible, and when she wasn’t busy being sad and staring off into space, she was helping Juno with homework or, like earlier tonight, going to the physical rehabilitation center with Nana and Pops.

Juno gazed up at the colorful boxes, eyes narrowed as she considered. When a seven-year-old is told for the first time in their life that they can pick whatever cereal they want, it’s a big decision. “Hmm.” She tapped her chin. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch looks good but Trix is fruity.” She reached for the box. “I’ll get Trix.”

“You know it’s not real fruit, right?”

Her daughter: ever confident. “Yes, it is. Look, it says ‘natural fruit flavors.’”

Jess saved the lesson on tricky advertising for a better mood and tossed the box into the cart.

A shocking amount of money later, they were loading groceries into the trunk when her phone rang with an unknown number. “Go ahead and get in. I’ll finish,” Jess told Juno, and motioned that she had a call. “Hello?”


Tinny music filled the line and Jess glanced at the number again. “This is Jessica. Who is this?”

“Jessie? It’s Mama.”

“Mom? I can barely hear you.”

In the background, the sound of shuffling and muffled laugher, and then Jamie was back, the line quieter from whatever room she’d moved to. She let out an annoyed scoff and sounded like she was speaking to someone else when she said, “Assholes wouldn’t turn it down.”

Jess loaded the last bag and leaned against the back of her car, listening closely. “Whose phone are you using? I didn’t recognize the number.”

“I got a new one. Was getting so many unwanted calls. Just all the time.”

Jess’s heart sank. Bill collectors. This was Jamie’s third new number in as many years. And now that Jess could hear better, she registered a definite slurring.

“Mom, are you drinking?”

Her Jusalilbit came out as one fluid syllable, meaning what she said next lacked any credibility: “Only beer. Not drunk, though. I promise.”

Closing her eyes, Jess took a deep, steadying breath, and then slammed the trunk shut. So much for clean for eighteen months.

“Listen, Jamie, I’m out with Juno, and we have a car full of groceries. I have your new number now, so I’ll call you later.”

“No, wait. Baby, I need you to come get me.”

Jess worked to keep the annoyed edge from her voice. “Sorry, I can’t tonight. I need to get Juno home and I have a lot of work to do. Sleep it off, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She turned to take the cart back.

“Jessie, I think I’m in trouble.”

Jess stopped. “What kind of trouble?”

“With the cops,” she said, sounding like she’d put a cupped hand around the phone. “I’d drive myself over to your place, but I had a little to drink and probably shouldn’t.”

Jess returned to the car. “Mom, you can’t come to my place if the police are looking for you, are you serious right now?”

“That’s all you have to say?” her mother asked. “Aren’t you even a little bit proud of me?”

Jess’s mouth dropped open and for a few seconds she honestly had no idea what to say. “Am I—? For getting drunk? For having a problem with the police?”

“For not driving,” Jamie snapped. “You know what, never mind. I’ll just wait twenty minutes and then drive myself.”

“Mom, wait.” Jess closed her eyes, counted to five. The sun was already starting to set. Nana and Pops were out with some of his navy friends; Fizzy was on a deadline, and Jess couldn’t keep running to her anyway. River—River was apparently out of the picture. She was on her own.

“Don’t drive,” she said. “Just … send me the address. I’ll come now.”

THE ADDRESS JAMIE sent was to her friend Ann’s house in Vista, over half an hour’s drive away. Jess had met Ann a few times and knew she wasn’t the worst of Jamie’s people—she was, after all, responsible enough to have a steady home. A few cars littered the long, wide driveway—Jess didn’t see Jamie’s, but that didn’t mean anything—and the sound of classic rock filtered through the open windows.

“Whose house is this?” Juno asked, peering through the windshield at the two-story orange stucco house. She scrunched her nose. “It smells like that comic book shop we went to.”

Weed. It smelled like weed. But that was the least of Jess’s worries.

“It’s Grandma Jamie’s friend’s house.” Jess helped her daughter from the back seat and took her hand. “I want you to hold on to my hand the whole time, and don’t talk to anyone.” They made their way up the driveway, but Jess stopped. Who knew what they would find inside? “Just—don’t look at anything if you can help it.”

Juno nodded, gripping her mom’s hand in her clammy little one. Jess tried to keep most of the bad stuff from her kid, but Juno knew enough about Jamie to not ask too many questions.

The front door was partially ajar and Def Leppard blasted sharply out onto the front porch. Juno gave her mom a wary frown before Jess pushed the door open and took a step inside. “Hello?”

Jamie walked around the corner with a tumbler of amber liquid in her hand, but when she saw her daughter, she immediately put it down on a cluttered table. She was barefoot and wearing a knee-length sundress; Jess tightened her grip on Juno as she glanced uneasily around the room. There was a man passed out on a couch, a woman in the kitchen anxiously pacing as she murmured into a phone. God only knew what was happening upstairs. “Get your things, Mom. Time to go.”

Jamie spotted Juno, and her face brightened, arms went wide. “There’s my baby girl.” Her voice was too big, smile too wide. “Give Grandma a hug.” Juno took a step back, wrapping her arms around Jess’s waist and hiding behind her legs. Dejected, Jamie straightened and turned her attention to her daughter. “Didn’t think you’d be here so soon.”

Jamie didn’t seem falling-down drunk, but her complexion was pallid and vaguely sweaty. She swayed where she stood. As if reading Jess’s thoughts, Jamie swiped self-consciously at the mascara smeared under her eyes and ran two shaking hands through her hair.

“It’s late,” Jess said flatly. “It’s a school night. Everyone in this house is probably drunk or high, including you.”

“Why do you always assume the worst of me?”

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