Last Breath – Karin Slaughter

  1. “Come on now, Miss Charlie.” Dexter Black’s voice was scratchy over the jailhouse payphone. He was fifteen years her senior, but the “miss” was meant to convey respect for their respective positions. “I told you I’m’a take care of your bill soon as you get me outta this mess.” Charlie Quinn rolled her eyes up so far in her head that she felt dizzy. She was standing outside a packed room of Girl Scouts at the YWCA. She should not have taken the call, but there were few worse things than being surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls. “Dexter, you said the exact same thing the last time I got you out of trouble, and the minute you walked out of rehab, you spent all of your money on lottery tickets.” “I could’a won, and then I would’a paid you out half. Not just what I owe you, Miss Charlie. Half.” “That’s very generous, but half of nothing is nothing.” She waited for him to come up with another excuse, but all she heard was the distinct murmur of the North Georgia Men’s Detention Center. Bars being rattled. Expletives being shouted.

    Grown men crying. Guards telling them all to shut the hell up. She said, “I’m not wasting my anytime cell-phone minutes on your silence.” “I got something,” Dexter said. “Something gonna get me paid.” “I hope it’s not anything you wouldn’t want the police to find out about on a recorded phone conversation from jail.” Charlie wiped sweat from her forehead. The hallway was like an oven. “Dexter, you owe me almost two thousand dollars. I can’t be your lawyer for free.

    I’ve got a mortgage and school loans and I’d like to be able to eat at a nice restaurant occasionally without worrying my credit card will be declined.” “Miss Charlie,” Dexter repeated. “I see what you were doing there, reminding me about the phone being recorded, but what I’m saying is that I got something might be worth some money to the police.” “You should get a good lawyer to represent you in the negotiations, because it’s not going to be me.” “Wait, wait, don’t hang up,” Dexter pleaded. “I’m just remembering what you told me all them years ago when we first started. You remember that?” Charlie’s eye roll was not as pronounced this time. Dexter had been her first client when she’d set up shop straight out of law school. He said, “You told me that you passed up them big jobs in the city ’cause you wanted to help people.” He paused for effect.

    “Don’t you still wanna help people, Miss Charlie?” She mumbled a few curses that the phone monitors at the jail would appreciate. “Carter Grail,” she said, offering him the name of another lawyer. “That old drunk?” Dexter sounded picky for a man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. “Miss Charlie, please can you—” “Don’t sign anything that you don’t understand.” Charlie flipped her phone closed and dropped it into her purse. A group of women in bike shorts walked past. The YWCA mid-morning crowd consisted of retirees and young mothers. She could hear a distant thump-thump-thump of heavy bass from an exercise class. The air smelled of chlorine from the indoor pool. Thunks from the tennis courts penetrated the double-paned windows.

    Charlie leaned back against the wall. She replayed Dexter’s call in her head. He was in jail again. For meth again. He was probably thinking he could snitch on a fellow meth head, or a dealer, and make the charges go away. If he didn’t have a lawyer looking over the deal from the district attorney’s office, he would be better off holding his nuts and buying more lottery tickets. She felt bad about his situation, but not as bad as she felt about the prospect of being late on her car payment. The door to the rec room opened. Belinda Foster looked panicked. She was twenty-eight, the same age as Charlie, but with a toddler at home, a baby on the way and a husband she talked about as if he was another burdensome child.

    Taking over Girl Scout career day had not been Belinda’s stupidest mistake this summer, but it was in the top three. “Charlie!” Belinda tugged at the trefoil scarf around her neck. “If you don’t get back in here, I’m gonna throw myself off the roof.” “You’d only break your neck.” Belinda pulled open the door and waited. Charlie nudged around her friend’s very pregnant belly. Nothing had changed in the rec room since her ringing cell phone had given her respite from the crowd. All of the oxygen was being sucked up by twenty fresh-faced, giggling Girl Scouts ranging from the ages of fifteen to eighteen. Charlie tried not to shudder at the sight of them. She had a tiny smidge over a decade on most of the girls, but there was something familiar about each and every one of them.

    The math nerds. The future English majors. The cheerleaders. The Plastics. The goths. The dorks. The freaks. The geeks. They all flashed the same smiles at each other, the kind that edged up at the corners of their mouths because, at any time, one of them could pull a proverbial knife: a haircut might look stupid, the wrong color nail polish could be on fingernails, the wrong shoes, the wrong tights, the wrong word and suddenly you were on the outside looking in. Charlie could still recall what it felt like to be stuck in the purgatory of the outside.

    There was nothing more torturous, more lonely, than being iced out by a gaggle of teenage girls. “Cake?” Belinda offered her a paper-thin slice of sheet cake. “Hm,” was all Charlie could say. Her stomach felt queasy. She couldn’t stop her gaze from traveling around the sparsely furnished rec room. The girls were all young, thin and beautiful in a way that Charlie did not appreciate when she was among them. Short miniskirts. Tight T-shirts and blouses opened one button too many. They seemed so frighteningly confident. They flicked back their long, fake blonde hair as they laughed.

    They narrowed expertly made-up eyes as they listened to stories. Sashes were askew. Vests were unbuttoned. Some of these girls were in serious violation of the Girl Scout dress code. Charlie said, “I can’t remember what we talked about when we were that age.” “That the Culpepper girls were a bunch of bitches.” Charlie winced at the name of her torturers. She took the plate from Belinda, but only to keep her hands occupied. “Why aren’t any of them asking me questions?” “We never asked questions,” Belinda said, and Charlie felt instant regret that she had spurned all the career women who had spoken at her Girl Scout meetings. The speakers had all seemed so old.

    Charlie was not old. She still had her badge-filled sash in a closet somewhere at home. She was a kick-ass lawyer. She was married to an adorable guy. She was in the best shape of her life. These girls should think she was awesome. They should be inundating her with questions about how she got to be so cool instead of snickering in their little cliques, likely discussing how much pig’s blood to put in a bucket over Charlie’s head. “I can’t believe their make-up,” Belinda said. “My mother almost scrubbed the eyes off my face when I tried to sneak out with mascara on.” Charlie’s mother had been killed when she was thirteen, but she could recall many a lecture from Lenore, her father’s secretary, about the dangerous message sent by too-tight Jordache jeans.

    Not that Lenore had been able to stop her. Belinda said, “I’m not going to raise Layla like that.” She meant her three-year-old daughter, who had somehow turned out to be a thoughtful, angelic child despite her mother’s lifelong love of beer pong, tequila shooters, and unemployed guys who rode motorcycles. “These girls, they’re sweet, but they have no sense of shame. They think everything they do is okay. And don’t even get me started on the sex. The things they say in meetings.” She snorted, leaving out the best part. “We were never like that.” Charlie had seen quite the opposite, especially when a Harley was involved.

    “I guess the point of feminism is that they have choices, not that they do exactly what we think they should do.” “Well, maybe, but we’re still right and they’re still wrong.” “Now you sound like a mother.” Charlie used her fork to cut off a section of chocolate frosting from the cake. It landed like paste on her tongue. She handed the plate back to Belinda. “I was terrified of disappointing my mom.” Belinda finished the cake. “I was terrified of your mom, period.” Charlie smiled, then she put her hand to her stomach as the frosting roiled around like driftwood in a tsunami.

    “You okay?” Belinda asked. Charlie held up her hand. The sickness came over her so suddenly that she couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was. Belinda knew the look. “It’s down the hall on the—” Charlie bolted out of the room. She kept her hand tight to her mouth as she tried doors. A closet. Another closet. A fresh-faced Girl Scout was coming out of the last door she tried. “Oh,” the teenager said, flinging up her hands, backing away.

    Charlie ran into the closest stall and sloughed the contents of her stomach into the toilet. The force was so much that tears squeezed out of her eyes. She gripped the side of the bowl with both hands. She made grunting noises that she would be ashamed for any human being to hear. But someone did hear. “Ma’am?” the teenager asked, which somehow made everything worse, because Charlie was not old enough to be called ma’am. “Ma’am, are you okay?” “Yes, thank you.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, thank you. You can go away.” Charlie bit her lip so that she wouldn’t curse the helpful little creature like a dog.

    She searched for her purse. It was outside the stall. Her wallet had fallen out, her keys, a pack of gum, loose change. The strap dragged across the greasy-looking tile floor like a tail. She started to reach out for it, but gave up when her stomach clenched. All she could do was sit on the filthy bathroom floor, gather her hair up off her neck, and pray that her troubles would be confined to one end of her body. “Ma’am?” the girl repeated. Charlie desperately wanted to tell her to get the hell out, but couldn’t risk opening her mouth. She waited, eyes closed, listening to the silence, begging her ears to pick out the sound of the door closing as the girl left. Instead, the faucet was turned on.

    Water ran into the sink. Paper towels were pulled from the dispenser. Charlie opened her eyes. She flushed the toilet. Why on earth was she so ill? It couldn’t be the cake. Charlie was lactose intolerant, but Belinda would never make anything from scratch. Canned frosting was 99 percent chemicals, usually not enough to send her over the edge. Was it the happy chicken from General Ho’s she’d had for supper last night? The egg roll she’d sneaked out of the fridge before going to bed? The luncheon meat she’d scarfed down before her morning run? The breakfast burrito fiesta she’d gotten at Taco Bell on the way to the Y? Jesus, she ate like a sixteen-year-old boy. The faucet turned off. Charlie should have at least opened the stall door, but a quick survey of the damage changed her mind.

    Her navy skirt was hiked up. Pantyhose ripped. There were splatters on her white silk blouse that would likely never come out. Worst of all, she had scuffed the toe of her new shoe, a navy highheel Lenore had helped her pick out for court. “Ma’am?” the teen said. She was holding a wet paper towel under the stall door. “Thank you,” Charlie managed. She pressed the cool towel to the back of her neck and closed her eyes again. Was this a stomach bug? “Ma’am, I can get you something to drink,” the girl offered. Charlie almost threw up again at the thought of Belinda’s cough-mediciney punch.

    If the girl was not going to leave, she might as well be put to use. “There’s some change in my wallet. Do you mind getting a ginger ale from the machine?” The girl knelt down on the floor. Charlie saw the familiar khaki-colored sash with badges sewn all over it. Customer Loyalty. Business Planning. Marketing. Financial Literacy. Top Seller. Apparently, she knew how to move some cookies.

    Charlie said, “The bills are in the side.” The girl opened her wallet. Charlie’s driver’s license was in the clear plastic part. “I thought your last name was Quinn?” “It is. At work. That’s my married name.” “How long have you been married?” “Four and a half years.” “My gran says it takes five years before you hate them.” Charlie could not imagine ever hating her husband. She also couldn’t imagine keeping up her end of this under-stall conversation.

    The urge to puke again was tickling at the back of her throat. “Your dad is Rusty Quinn,” the girl said, which meant that she had been in town for more than ten minutes. Charlie’s father had a reputation in Pikeville because of the clients he defended— convenience store robbers, drug dealers, murderers and assorted felons. How people in town viewed Rusty generally depended on whether or not they or a family member ever needed his services. The girl said, “I heard he helps people.” “He does.” Charlie did not like how the words echoed back to Dexter’s reminder that she had turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the city so that she could work for people who really needed her. If there was one guiding ethos in Charlie’s life, it was that she was not going to be like her father. “I bet he’s expensive.” The girl asked, “Are you expensive? I mean, when you help people?” Charlie put her hand to her mouth again.

    How could she ask this teenager to please get her some ginger ale without screaming at her? “I enjoyed your speech,” the girl said. “My mom was killed in a car accident when I was little.” Charlie waited for context, but there was none. The girl slid a dollar bill out of Charlie’s wallet and finally, thankfully, left. There was nothing to do in the ensuing silence but see if she could stand. Charlie had fortuitously ended up in the handicapped stall. She gripped the metal rails and shakily pulled herself up to standing. She spat into the toilet a few times before flushing it again. When she opened the stall door, the mirror greeted her with a pale, sickly-looking woman in a $120 puke-spotted silk blouse. Her dark hair looked wild.

    Her lips had a bluish tint. Charlie lifted her hair, holding it in a ponytail. She turned on the sink and slurped water into her mouth. She caught her reflection again as she leaned down to spit. Her mother’s eyes looked back at her. Her mother’s arched eyebrow. What’s going on in that mind of yours, Charlie? Charlie had heard this question at least three or four times a week back when her mother was alive. She would be sitting in the kitchen doing her homework, or on the floor of her room trying to do some kind of craft project, and her mother would sit opposite her and ask the same question that she always asked. What is going on in your mind? It was not contrived to be a conversation starter. Her mother was a scientist and a scholar.

    She had never been one for idle chitchat. She was genuinely curious about what thoughts filled her thirteenyear-old daughter’s head. Until Charlie had met her husband, no one else had ever expressed such genuine interest. The door opened. The girl was back with a ginger ale. She was pretty, though not conventionally so. She did not seem to fit in with her perfectly coifed peers. Her dark hair was long and straight, pinned back with a silver clip on one side. She was young-looking, probably fifteen, but her face was absent make-up. Her crisp green Girl Scout T-shirt was tucked into her faded jeans, which Charlie felt was unfair because in her day they had been forced to wear scratchy white button-up shirts and khaki skirts with knee socks.

    Charlie did not know which felt worse, that she had thrown up or that she had just employed the phrase, “in her day.” “I’ll put the change in your wallet,” the girl offered. “Thank you.” Charlie drank some of the ginger ale while the girl neatly repacked the contents of her purse. The girl said, “Those stains on your blouse will come out with a mixture of a tablespoon of ammonia, a quart of warm water and a half a teaspoon of detergent. You soak it in a bowl.” “Thank you again.” Charlie wasn’t sure she wanted to soak anything she owned in ammonia, but judging by the badges on the sash, the girl knew what she was talking about. “How long have you been in Girl Scouts?” “I got my start as a Brownie. My mom signed me up.

    I thought it was lame, but you learn lots of things, like business skills.” “My mom signed me up, too.” Charlie had never thought it was lame. She had loved all the projects and the camping trips and especially eating the cookies she had made her parents buy. “What’s your name?” “Flora Faulkner,” she said. “My mom named me Florabama, because I was born on the state line, but I go by Flora.” Charlie smiled, but only because she knew that she was going to laugh about this later with her husband. “There are worse things that you could be called.” Flora looked down at her hands. “A lot of the girls are pretty good at thinking of mean things.

    ” Clearly, this was some kind of opening, but Charlie was at a loss for words. She combed back through her knowledge of after-school specials. All she could remember was that movie of the week where Ted Danson is married to Glenn Close and she finds out that he’s molesting their teenage daughter but she’s been cold in bed so it’s probably her fault so they all go to therapy and learn to live with it. “Miss Quinn?” Flora put Charlie’s purse on the counter. “Do you want me to get you some crackers?” “No, I’m fine.” Remarkably, Charlie was fine. Whatever had made her stomach upset had passed. “Why don’t you give me a minute to clean myself up, then I’ll join you back in the rec room?” “Okay,” Flora said, but she didn’t leave. “Is there anything else?” “I was wondering—” She glanced at the mirror over the sink, then back down at the floor. There was something delicate about the girl that Charlie had not noticed before.

    When Flora looked up again, she was crying. “Can you help me? I mean, as a lawyer?” Charlie was surprised by the request. The girl looked nothing like her usual juvenile offenders who’d been caught selling weed behind the school. Her mind flashed up all the nice, white-girl problems: pregnant, STD, kleptomaniac, bad score on the SATs. Rather than guess, Charlie asked, “What’s going on?” “I don’t have a lot of money, at least not yet, but—” “Don’t worry about that part. Just tell me what you need.” “I want to be emancipated.” Charlie felt her mouth form into a circle of surprise. “I’m fifteen, but I’ll be sixteen next month, and I looked it up at the library. I know that’s the legal age in Georgia to be emancipated.

    ” “If you looked it up, then you know the criteria.” “I have to be married or in active service in the military or I have to petition the court to emancipate me.” She really had done her homework. “You live with your father?” “My grandparents. My father’s dead. He overdosed in prison.” Charlie nodded, because she knew that this happened more often than anyone wanted to admit. “Is there anyone else in your family who could take you in?” “No, it’s just the three of us left. I love Paw and Meemaw, but they’re…” Flora shrugged, but the shrug was the important part. Charlie asked, “Are they hurting you?” “No, ma’am, never.

    They’re…” Again, she shrugged. “I don’t think they like me very much.” “A lot of kids your age feel that way.” “They’re not strong people,” she said. “Strong in character.” Charlie leaned back against the counter. She had left child molester off her list of possible teenagegirl problems. “Flora, emancipation is a very serious request. If you want me to help you, you’re going to have to give me details.” “Have you ever helped a kid with this before?” Charlie shook her head.

    “No, so if you don’t feel comfortable—” “It’s okay,” Flora said. “I was just curious. I don’t think it happens a lot.” “That’s for a reason,” Charlie said. “Generally, the court is very hesitant to remove a child from a home. You have to provide justification, and if you really looked into the law, there are two other important criteria: you have to prove that you can support yourself without your parents, and you have to do this without receiving any aid from the state.” “I work shifts at the diner. And my friend Nancy’s parents said I could live with them until I’m out of school, and then when I go to college, I can live at the dorms.” The more Flora spoke, the more determined she sounded. Charlie asked, “Have you ever been in trouble?” “No, ma’am.

    Not ever. I’ve got a 4.0 GPA. I’m already taking AP classes. I’m on the Principal’s Scholars list and I volunteer in the reading lab.” Her face turned red from the bragging. She put her hands to her cheeks. “I’m sorry, but you asked.” “Don’t be sorry. That’s a lot to be proud of,” Charlie told her.

    “Listen, if your friend’s parents are willing to take you in, it might be that you can work out an arrangement without the courts getting involved.” “I’ve got money,” Flora said. “I can pay you.” Charlie wasn’t going to take money from a troubled fifteen-year-old. “It’s not about money. It’s about what’s easier for you. And for your grandparents. If this goes to court—” “I don’t mean that kind of money,” Flora said. “After my mama was killed in the car accident, the trucking company had to set up a trust to take care of me.” Charlie waited, but the girl didn’t volunteer details.

    “What kind of trust?” “It pays out for things like where I live and medical stuff, but most of it’s being held until I’m ready to go to college, only I’m scared it’s not going to be there when I’m ready to go.” “Why is that?” “Because Paw and Meemaw are spending it.” “If the trust says they can only use the money for—” “They bought a house, but then they sold it for the cash and rented an apartment, then they took me to the doctor and he said I was sick, but I wasn’t, and then they got a new car.” Charlie crossed her arms. “That’s stealing from you and defrauding the trust. Those are both very serious crimes.” “I know. I looked that up, too.” Flora stared down at her hands again. “I don’t want to get Meemaw and Paw into trouble.

    I can’t send them to jail. Not like that. I just want to be able to…” She sniffed. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I just want to go to college. I want to be able to have choices. That’s what my mama would’ve wanted. She never wanted me to get stuck where I didn’t want to be.” Charlie let out a steady stream of breath. Her own mother had been the same way, always pushing Charlie to study harder, to do more, to use the gifts of her intelligence and drive to be useful in the world.

    “She was good to me,” Flora said. “My mama. She was kind, and she looked after me, and she was always in my corner, no matter what.” Flora wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry. I still miss her is all. I feel like I need to honor her memory, to make sure some good comes out of what happened to her.” It was Charlie’s turn to look down at her hands. She felt a lump in her throat. She had thought more about her mother in the last five minutes than she had in the last month.

    The longing for her, the desire for one more chance to tell her mother what was on her mind, was an ache that would never go away. Charlie had to clear her throat before she could ask Flora, “How long have you been thinking about emancipation?” “Since after Paw’s surgery,” the girl said. “He hurt his leg three years ago falling off a ladder. He couldn’t go back to work.” “He’s addicted to pain medication?” Charlie guessed, because the Pikeville jail was filled with such men. “Be honest with me. Is it pills?” The girl nodded with visible reluctance. “Don’t tell anybody, please. I don’t want him to go to prison.” “That won’t happen because of me,” Charlie promised.

    “But you need to understand that putting this in motion is a public thing. You won’t be a protected minor anymore. Court records are out there for everybody to see. And that’s not even the hard part. In order to prepare a petition supporting your request for emancipation, I’ll have to talk to your grandparents, your teachers, your employer, your friend’s parents. Everybody will know what you’re doing.” “I’m not trying to do it on the sly. You can talk to anybody you want to, today even, right now. I don’t want anybody to get into trouble, like go-to-jail trouble. I just want to get out so I can go to a good college and do something with my life.

    ” Her earnestness was heartbreaking. “Your grandparents might put up a fight. You’ll have to be blunt about why you want to leave. You don’t have to mention the pills, but you’ll have to tell a judge that you feel they’re not good guardians for you, that you would rather be on your own than have to live with them.” Charlie tried to paint a picture for her. “You’ll all be in court at the same time. You’ll have to tell a judge, in the open, in front of anybody who wants to hear, that you are unable to reconcile with them and you don’t want them in your life in any capacity.” Flora seemed to equivocate. “What if they don’t fight it? What if they agree with it?” “That would certainly make things easier, but—” “Paw has other problems.” Charlie’s mind went straight back to the abuse issue.

    “Is he hurting you?” Flora did not answer, but she didn’t look away, either. “Flora, if he’s hurting you—” The door opened. They both startled at the furious look on Belinda’s face. “What are you two rascals doing hiding out in here?” She had tried to make her voice sound light, but there was no hiding her distress. “I’ve got a whole room full of girls back there with nothing to do but drink punch and talk about how dry my cake is.” Flora looked at Charlie. “It’s not what you’re thinking.” There was a note of desperation in her voice. “I mean it. It’s not that.

    Talk to whoever you need to. Please. I’ll make a list for you. Okay?” Before Charlie could answer, Flora left the bathroom. “What was that about?” Belinda asked. Charlie opened her mouth to explain, but she got stuck on Flora’s desperate tone, her insistence that what Charlie was thinking was not what was actually happening. But what if it was? If the girl was being abused by her grandfather, that changed everything. “Charlie?” Belinda asked. “What’s up? Why are you hiding out in here?” “I’m not hiding, I was—” “Did you throw up?” Charlie could only concentrate on one thing at a time. “Did you make that frosting from scratch?” “Don’t be stupid.

    ” Belinda squinted her eyes, as if Charlie was an abstract painting. “Your boobs look bigger.” “I thought your sorority taught you how to deal with those feelings.” “Shut up,” Belinda said. “Are you pregnant?” “Very funny.” The only religious thing in Charlie’s life was the schedule by which she took her birth control pills. “I’ve been spotting for two days. I’m cramping. I want to eat candy and kill everything. I think it’s just a bug.” “It better be a bug.” Belinda rubbed her round belly. “Enjoy your freedom before everything changes.” “That sounds ominous.” “You’ll see. Once you start having babies, that perfect, loving husband of yours will start treating you like a milk cow. Trust me. It’s like they think they have something over you. And they do. You’re trapped, and they know that you need them, but they can walk away at any time and find somebody younger and tighter to have fun with.” Charlie wasn’t going to have this conversation again. The only thing that seemed to change about her friends with children is that they started treating their husbands like jerks. “Tell me about Flora.” “Who?” Belinda seemed to have forgotten the girl as soon as she left the room. “Oh, her. You know that movie we saw last month, Mean Girls? She’d be the Lindsay Lohan character.” “So, part of the group but not a leader, and not particularly comfortable with the meanness?” “More like a survivor. Those bitches are next-level cruel.” Belinda sniffed toward the handicap stall. “Did you eat bacon for breakfast?” Charlie searched her purse for some mints. She found gum instead, but the thought of the peppermint flavor made her feel queasy again. “Do you have some candy?” “I think I have some Jolly Ranchers.” Belinda unzipped her purse. “Ugh, I should clean this out. Cheerios. How did those get in there? There’s some mints. Oreos, but you can’t—” Charlie snatched the bag out of her hands. “I thought you couldn’t do milk?” “Do you really think this white crap has milk in it?” Charlie bit into an Oreo. She felt an instant soothing in her brain. “What about her parents?” “Whose parents?” “B, keep up with me. I’m asking about Flora Faulkner.” “Oh, well, her mother died. Dad, too. His parents are raising her. She’s a cookie-selling machine. I think she went to the ceremony in Atlanta last—” “What are her grandparents like?” “I’ve only been doing this for a minute, Charlie. I don’t know much of anything about any of those girls except they seem to think it’s easy to bake a sheet cake and throw a party for twenty snotty teenagers who don’t appreciate anything you’ve done for them and think you’re old and fat and stupid.” She had tears in her eyes, but she had tears in her eyes a lot lately. “It’s exactly like being home with Ryan. I thought it would be different having something to do, but they think I’m a failure, just like he does.” Charlie couldn’t take another crying jag about Belinda’s husband right now. “Do you think that Flora’s grandparents are doing a good job?” “You mean, raising her?” Belinda looked in the mirror, using her pinky finger to carefully wipe under her eyes. “I dunno. She’s a good kid. She does well in school. She’s an awesome Girl Scout. I think she’s really smart. And sweet. And really thoughtful, like she helped me get the cake out of the car when I got here, while the rest of those lazy bitches stood around with their thumbs up their asses.” “Okay, that’s Flora. What about her grandparents as human beings?” “I don’t like to say bad things about people.” Charlie laughed. So did Belinda. If she didn’t say bad things about people, half her day would be spent in silence. Belinda said, “I met the grandmother last month. She smelled like a whiskey barrel at eight o’clock in the morning. Driving a sapphire blue Porsche, though. A freaking Porsche. And they had that house on the lake, but now they’re living in those cinder-block apartments down from Shady Ray’s.” Charlie wondered where the Porsche had ended up. “What about the grandfather?” “I dunno. Some of the girls were teasing her about him because he’s good looking or something, but he’s got to be, like, two thousand years old, so maybe they were just being bitches. You get teased about your dad all the time, right?” Charlie hadn’t been teased, she had been threatened, and her mother had been murdered, because her father made a living out of keeping bad men out of prison. “Anything else about the grandfather?” “That’s all I’ve got.” Belinda was checking her make-up in the mirror again. Charlie didn’t want to think in platitudes, like that her friend was glowing, but Belinda was a different person when she was pregnant. Her skin cleared up. There was always color in her cheeks. For all of her prickliness, she had stopped obsessing about the small things. Like she didn’t seem to care that her watermelon-sized stomach was pressed against the counter, wicking water into her dress. Or that her navel poked out like the stem on an apple. Charlie would look like that one day. She would grow her husband’s child in her belly. She would be a mother—hopefully a mother like her own mother, who was interested in her kids, who pushed them to be intelligent, useful women.
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