Hannah, the only permanent resident of Aunt Mae's Place aside from Mae, is on the porch swing, reading Goosebumps, when I arrive. Her unruly hair is half in and half out of a ponytail, her round cheeks flushed. She frowns, deepening the lines between her brown eyes. "You're late."
“How can I be late? I said I’d be here Saturday morning and it’s---”
"Aunt Mae is already gone, Ellen. Gone.”
"It's only for one night. I'm here to keep you company."
"I know that, Ellen. Mae told me." Hannah glares at the object in my hand. "Where did you get that?"
“I found it in the driveway. It must have fallen out of someone’s car, or been dropped---”
“It’s not mine.”
“Of course, it’s not. It’s a pregnancy test.”
"I know what it is, Ellen. I know everything. Everything.”
The last thing I need is for Hannah to get all riled up two minutes into the weekend. I reach into my overnight bag and take out a brush and a hair-tie. “Let me fix your hair for you.”
Hannah obediently stands up and turns around. Her pink-tank top is damp with sweat. Hannah is heavier than last time I saw her but she's always been healthy and fit. She's won numerous medals in the Special Olympics.
She thanks me for fixing her hair and hugs me. Hannah can be sweet when she's not grumpy.
Inside, I set my overnight bag at the bottom of the stairs, but hold onto my purse. It's not a good idea to leave valuables unattended here. I learned that sixteen years ago.
What used to be a dining room is now a computer room/library. The books have changed over the years, along with Mae's progression toward Eastern religion. While there are still plenty of self-help books on subjects ranging from eating disorders, anxiety, depression, grief, surviving child abuse, and overcoming addiction, there are also books on Buddhism, yoga, meditation, healing with herbal supplements, and spiritual enlightenment.
The computers are for school work, looking up resources, job hunting, apartment hunting, etc.
Mindy, a twenty-three-year-old brunette with a glass eye and a slightly misshapen forehead, jumps up from one of the desk chairs. "Do you believe in soul mates?"
“I’ve found mine. His name is Shane. He’s an electrician.” She motions to the Facebook page on the screen. “He’s good looking, don't you think?”
Wavy blond hair, blue eyes, slightly crooked smile. Or is it a smirk? He reminds me of the boys at my high school---the ones who lined the hallway outside the cafeteria, calling out ratings for every girl who walked by. I got a five, two sixes, and a seven, before the vice principal put an end to it. On the day of the seven, I walked a bit taller, chin up, shoulders back. I'm embarrassed now, by how good that number made me feel.
"We're in love. He's so good-looking. And good in bed." Mindy's peers at the pregnancy test in my hand. "What's that?"
“I found it in the driveway. It’s positive.”
“It’s not mine.”
“I’m not doing an investigation. I just brought it in to throw it away.”
“Oh.” Mindy turns back to the screen and is lost.
The kitchen was added to years ago. There are two refrigerators, two stoves, three sinks, and a whole lot of cupboards and counter space. It serves the women who live in the five one-room cabins as well as the girls in the house. Two long tables stretch the length of one wall. There are a built-in bench and a row of mismatched chairs on the other side.
There are lists on the refrigerators--- emergency phone numbers on one and house rules on the other. The main rules are no drugs, no smoking, no alcohol, no overnight guests, and no flippity-floppity in the house. (No one will get pregnant on Mae's watch.) The lesser rules, such as labeling one's food, promptly tending to laundry, and cleaning up after one's self, are, according to Mae, largely ignored.
There are two young women in the room. Rose, an older teen with pink hair, pierced eyebrows, and rotting teeth, is recovering from meth addiction. She’s sucking on an ice cream bar. Faith, a teenager with long blonde hair, an angelic face and rosy cheeks, is six months pregnant.
“Did Mindy show you the picture of her soul mate?” Rose asks.
“We think she made the whole thing up,” Faith whispers, glancing at the door as if she’s afraid of Mindy overhearing.
“He’s so good looking.” Rose rolls her eyes. “And so good in bed.”
Rose spots the stick in my hand. “Why are you holding a pregnancy test?”
“I found it on the ground outside and brought it in to throw it away.” The kitchen trash can is overflowing, so I set the stick on top of an empty frozen dinner box, and make a mental note to empty the trash soon. “It looks like it was positive.”
“It's not mine,” Faith says. “I didn’t live here when I found out I was pregnant.”
“Not mine either,” Rose says, “I went to the free clinic.”
I glance at Rose's flat belly, exposed by denim shorts that rest low on her narrow hips. Rose pats her abdomen. "It's smaller than a grain of rice. I've already made an appointment. It wouldn't make sense to have it. My womb is so contaminated, it probably has two heads or only one eye, or else it could be missing its junk. I read once about a---"
“Please stop.” Faith’s hand comes to rest on her round belly, her rosy cheeks losing their color.
“I’m sure your baby is fine. Or should I say, the baby you’re incubating is fine? And if it's not, it won't be your problem, right?" Rose laughs.
“Who says I’m giving it away?”
“Your mother,” Rose answers.
“The adoption can’t go through without the father’s consent. If they don’t know who he is, they can’t force him to sign away his rights.”
“They can make you put unknown on the birth certificate,” Rose says.
“I won’t do it. I know who he is---”
"A fat lot of good that does you, when he won't take responsibility---"
"You don't know what you're talking about. He wants to be here for me, but he can't…" She shakes her head.
“Can’t what?” Rose asks. “Leave his wife?”
“It’s not like that! Jarrod is not---” she clamps a hand over her mouth.
Rose grins. “His name is Jarrod?”
“Please don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to get him in trouble.”
It's not the guy she should be worried about.
“Why? Does he go to your church? Or is he a teacher at that private, Christian school?”
“Please don’t say anything.” Faith is pleading with both of us now.
I used to work for social services. I don't keep secrets of this sort, not without knowing all the details.
“I can keep a secret, but it’ll cost you,” Rose says.
The girls are discussing Rose's payment for silence---something about a cute pair of sandals when Hannah enters the room and sees the empty ice cream bar box on the counter.
“Hey, that was mine!”
“I don't see your name on it,” Rose says.
“You already had one!”
"It's okay, Hannah. I'll go to the store and get more. This way, we can all have one."
“Fine. But it has to be the right kind. No nuts. No mint. Only chocolate with vanilla inside.”
“Do you want to come with me and pick them out yourself?”
“No. I can’t go to the store when I’m not working. If they see me, they’ll make me work. They will. That’s not a lie.”
I know better than to argue with Hannah when she says something is not a lie---a sure sign that it is.
Hannah has been bagging groceries at Safeway since she was a teenager. I can't blame her for not wanting to go in when she's not working.
I take requests. Faith wants orange cream. Rose wants toffee. Mindy wants to come with me.
In the car, Mindy chats nonstop about Shane. She met him at the Whip-n-Spur three weeks ago, and he's such a good dancer, and so good-looking, and did she mention good in bed? He's coming over tonight, to see her.
While I pick out ice cream bars, Mindy heads off down the personal care aisle. When I'm done checking out, she's waiting for me near the door, holding a small, semi-transparent white sack with a single item inside. She swings the bag, humming all the way to the car.
Please don't let the line be blue.
There are four of us in the living room. Hannah is sprawled out on a bean bag chair. Faith is stretched out on the sofa, her tank top pulled up under her small breasts, making circles on her belly with an ice cube. Rose is working on a crossword puzzle with a pencil. Every few minutes, she erases with such force that I expect the newspaper to end up in shreds.
I’m sitting in the armchair with one of Mae's books, learning how to live in the moment.
It's Hannah who gets up to answer the knock on the door. I can’t see the visitor’s face from the sofa, but I can hear his voice.
“Does Mindy Pennington live here?”
“I can’t answer that question.”
“It’s against the rules. We’re not allowed to talk to strange men.”
"I'm not strange, I swear."
“Swearing is not allowed here. It’s against the rules.”
“Who makes all these rules?”
“I guess that makes sense, seeing as this is Aunt Mae’s place. So, is she here?”
“I can’t answer that question.”
“Don’t tell me. It’s against the rules.”
“It’s not funny.”
It might be a little bit funny, but Hannah is getting upset, so I tell her to let the poor guy in. She does so reluctantly, muttering about getting in trouble with Mae. She drops into the bean bag chair, lands so hard that a few white pellets shoot out of a hole.
I recognize Shane from the Facebook photo. So does Faith.
Rose lowers her newspaper and laughs, with her mouth open so wide I can see where her molars used to be.
“What’s the joke?” Shane asks.
“Mindy talks about you all the time. She shows your photo to everyone who walks in the house. We thought she was only pretending to know you.”
“We’ve been calling you her imaginary boyfriend,” Faith says.
“I’m not her boyfriend. I barely know her.”
“But you’re here,” Rose says.
“To ask her to stop calling and texting me.”
Oh, boy. Poor Mindy.
Hannah gets up from the chair. "I'll go get Mindy."
Rose returns to her crossword puzzle, “I need a word that starts with p and ends with p---”
“Pimp,” Faith says.
“You didn’t even hear the clue. And it’s five letters, not four.”
“What’s the clue?” I ask.
“Birds preen, people do this.”
“Primp,” Shane says.
Mindy flounces into the room carrying the small white plastic sack around her wrist. She’s wearing a short skirt and freshly applied makeup. Her face is glistening with sweat, her foundation already melting. She gives Shane a sweet smile, tells him she needs to talk to him in private. He looks around the room, searching for rescue. His gaze comes to rest on me.
I can't help you, I say without opening my mouth. Mindy has him by the hand, is leading him toward the basement stairs.
"Men aren't allowed downstairs," Hannah says. "It's against the rules."
"It's all right, Hannah. Let's give them a few minutes to talk."
"Fine. It's not my business. But if Mae finds out, you'll be in trouble."
“I'll talk to Mae.”
After a moment, Rose goes back to calling out clues to a listless audience, her foot bouncing continuously.
Faith uses a spray bottle to mist her face and neck every few minutes, complains about heartburn, and the heat rash on her behind.
Hannah turns the pages in her book so hard that one rips. "Boys are not allowed in the bedrooms. Not even Ben. Mae said so."
"Hannah has a boyfriend," Rose says. "And she got in trouble."
"I did not!”
"Hannah and Ben sitting in a tree---”
"Oh, for God's sake, stop acting like a ten-year-old and leave Hannah alone."
Rose gives me a look I've seen before, but minus the eye roll. My daughters outgrew this childish behavior long before they were Rose's age. Of course, they didn't grow up in chaos and lose a few years to drug addiction. Still, she deserves the reprimand.
Shane enters the room, and we all turn to watch him as if he's the evening's entertainment. He keeps his eyes on the door. His face is so pale that not even Rose can bring herself to harass him. When the screen door closes behind him, there's a full minute of silence.
It’s Faith who gets up first, scratching her butt and complaining about the heat. She’ll never be able to sleep.
“Because you have a bowling ball in your belly,” Rose says.
Faith's cheeks flush, "Yeah, well, at least I'm not going to…"
“To what?” Rose dares her to say it.
Faith shakes her head. “Nothing.”
“You think you’re better than me because you’re having the kid? Is that it?”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Faith says softly.
"For who? You don't have a way to take care of it you won't give it to someone who does, and yet you think you're virtuous by having it."
“J. is going to take care of us,” Faith says with complete confidence.
Rose rolls her eyes. “Someone has watched too many Disney movies.”
I think Faith is going to cry, but instead, her face turns fierce and she holds up her middle finger.
Rose laughs as Faith makes for the stairs, using both hands to hold the weight of her belly.
"Do you have to be so mean?" I ask.
“Someone has to tell like it is. The guy who knocked her up is not going to ride up on his white horse and take her off to happily ever after.”
Silently, I agree. If life were all happy endings, Aunt Mae's Place wouldn't need to exist.
With a sigh, I get to my feet and head downstairs to check on Mindy. There are two semi-finished bedrooms in the basement. The door to Mindy's room is open. She's sitting on her bed with her phone in her hand. The bathroom door is open. There is a pregnancy test balanced on the edge of the sink.
Does anyone in this house throw anything away?
Unwilling to touch it, I look for toilet paper. The roll is empty. When I reach under the sink for a fresh roll, I find the plastic sack with the pregnancy test, still unopened, inside.
Using toilet tissue, I pick up the old stick with the fading blue line and carry it to Mindy's door. "Did you show this one to Shane and tell him you're pregnant?"
"I could be pregnant. He didn't use a rubber."
"But you're not, are you, Mindy?"
She shakes her head and starts to sob. "Why wasn't he happy? Why doesn't he love me?"
I reach over and stroke her hair. "I don't know Sweetheart, I don't know."
Back upstairs, I find Hannah in the kitchen, tearing the wrapper off an ice cream bar.
“How many of those have you had?”
“This is my first one.”
“It's not a lie!”
It's not worth arguing. It's really not. "Okay, Hannah."
“Why are you holding that?” Hannah's frowning hard at the stick in my hand.
“I'm throwing it away. Again.”
"It's not mine."
“I'm not lying! I swear.”
The universe tilts sideways and Hannah's thick shape is transformed. Her breasts are full, her belly round, and swelling with life.
I have to turn away to hide my tears.