Waking up at Shane's Mamaw's house, Ronnie immediately slid out of bed and looked at her clock. Six a.m. on the dot. It wasn't an alarm clock; she didn't need one.
She'd been living with Wishes and Shane almost three months now. She was usually the first one up, except when Wishes went into work early. Shane was a night-owl and usually slept in until eight or nine. Ronnie tried to imagine waking up to a bright morning, instead of pre-dawn dark; she couldn't remember ever doing it.
She'd left her parents physically, but eighteen years of conditioning were hard to shake off. Six in the morning found her on her feet before her eyes were even open. But at least she didn't have to hear a reconditioned electric school bell every morning anymore. Not outside her head, anyway.
Did I dream about Mom again? About twice a week, she had dreams in which she forgot her mother was dead. Her mother would walk past her; Ronnie would struggle to gain her attention. When her mother finally turned to her and opened her mouth, it was the sound of the bell Ronnie heard. She always woke from the dream, on her feet, at six.
It suddenly occurred to her she hadn't spoken with her father since early June. Meaning he didn't even know she was living in Georgia. Well, Hell. He's got my cell number.
It was Wednesday. She picked up her day calendar. Orange highlighted: Training day: carving. Aardvark was teaching her about stone face work today.
She'd once asked Wishes if he'd teach her how do the kind of work he'd done on his mother's gravestone (a bas-relief image of the Los Angeles City Hall). He'd shrugged. (She liked his shrugs; obvious, almost theatrical, not embarrassed little shoulder hunches like hers.) He said, "I don't remember for sure how I did that; it was a long time ago. I had a lot of time on my hands when I was little."
It was September, but the forecast high was still close to 90, so she opted for shorts. She laced on the pink steel-toe work boots Aardvark had gotten her.
She was learning a lot, working with him. Yesterday, he'd said she'd make a good shipmate. She wasn't 100% sure what that meant, but it sounded good.
She used the hall bathroom, then tiptoed downstairs to make herself breakfast. Wishes always stopped at the Chick-fil-A by his office, and Shane never had any breakfast but Pop-Tarts, which he bought by the case, or grits, which he cooked himself. So she usually just had cold cereal. She'd been on a Cap'n Crunch kick for a while. Usually Peanut Butter Crunch; occasionally Crunch Berries.
Halfway down the stairs, she smelled something frying. Parmelia was already in the kitchen, working at the stove in her scrubs and sneakers. Ronnie felt a twinge of annoyance; now she'd have to wait her turn to fry eggs.
Parmie smiled at her. "Good morning. I finally got up early enough to make you breakfast."
"You didn't have to do that." When was the last time anybody had made her breakfast? Aardvark always had black coffee ready, but that wasn't quite the same. (Though he'd even, with a show of reluctance, gotten some sugar and creamer.)
Parmie was loading up a plate. "It finally occurred to me that I moved in here without even asking you about it. I can at least make you breakfast."
"Oh, Parmie, that's silly. You've been part of the gang for a long time. Wishes just brought me home one day like a stray cat."
"Well, I just want to be a good housemate." Parmie set the plate in front of her. "Do you want orange juice?"
"Yes, thanks. My God, what is all this?" Ronnie recognized bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, baked beans and grilled tomatoes. There was also a round black object. She poked it. "No offense, but what's this unidentified fried object?"
Parmie sat down with her own plate. "Blood pudding. It's great!"
"Blood pudding. Great: yum. Is it made from blood?"
"Absolutely. Blood and fat. You can call it black pudding if you want."
Ronnie poked it with her fork. "Do I have to eat it?"
Parmie was already chowing down; she paused. "Well, why don't you try it? Try one bite."
Ronnie shook her head. "I don't like it."
"How do you know you don't like it if you haven't tried it?"
"I just know."
"C'mon, Ronnie, try one bite. Can't hurt you."
"I don't know."
"One bite. For me?"
Ronnie frowned. Her stomach was growling so hard it hurt, but she wasn't sure about the looks of that thing. She took a forkful. To her relief, it didn't really taste like blood. More like sausage. She ate it all.
Parmie beamed at her. "See? It's good for you."
Ronnie dug into the rest of her breakfast. "Thanks, Parmie, this is really great. Tomatoes and beans; I never thought of having that for breakfast before."
Parmie sighed. "Yes, my marriage was over quickly, but it lasted long enough that I picked up a taste for English breakfast."
"Damn, Parmie, this is good. You're gonna make me fat if you keep cooking."
"With all the manual labor you're doing with Aardvark, you need to eat. I could bounce a quarter off your stomach."
Ronnie put Heinz 57 on her potatoes and talked around a mouthful. "Always been skinny. I've been told I don't even look like a woman."
"Oh, stop, of course you do. Ask Shane."
Ronnie paused with her fork halfway to her mouth. "Say what?"
"Sure, get him to make you a bustier. You'll think you grew two cup sizes."
"Oh. I don't know." Ronnie felt herself blushing.
"Just badger him about it, and he'll work like a dog. I can take your measurements if you're shy."
"Well, you sure passed the housemate test, that's for sure." Ronnie forked both eggs into her mouth and swallowed. "You know what? My whole life, I never had more than two friends at a time, and it never lasted long because we moved so much. I left Tennessee in July, just like that, and nobody's missing me. But, then I meet Wishes ...." She looked down, suddenly embarrassed. She thought, Six twenty-one, and glanced at her watch. 6:21. "And all of a sudden it's like his people are my people, and it's like when I used to imagine having brothers and sisters. Like you, Parmie. I'm glad we got to be friends."
"That's funny. I mean, I know what you mean, Brat. Me too. Eat slowly; you'll get more out of it."
"Yeah, yeah. That's what they say."
"Hey, what about that Cherie chick? She's fun; we should all get together sometime."
"Sure, I guess." Ronnie meant to say something more, but stopped.
Parmie raised her eyebrows a little. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No! I just—it's funny, I don't think I ever made a friend all on my own before, I mean, not a female friend. They were always the girlfriends or sisters or whatever of guys I hung out with."
"So it's different with Cherie?"
"Yeah, we met like in a movie. Parmie, you should have seen it."
"We all saw it, remember? I thought Shane was going to have a stroke laughing."
"Oh, right, stupid YouTube. That damn Harry Potter kid."
"Ronnie, do you feel you want to keep Cherie all to yourself?"
"What? No, that's ridiculous." Yes, I do. She didn't understand it, but it was true. "Absolutely, let's all do lunch this weekend. I'll get her up here. We oughta go to that Thai Diner."
"Next to the Kroger? God, yes. Masoman Chicken."
Ronnie looked at her watch again. "Hey, gotta go. Aardvark said to be there early or face disciplinary measures." She grabbed the plates and put them in the sink. "I bet Shane'll get the dishes. It's one of the three or four things he does right." She stopped, looked at Parmie. "Sorry, I shouldn't rag on your boyfriend."
Parmie laughed. "No, you're right. Three, four, maybe five things. Bless his heart. But we need a bigger bed; he always ends up diagonal."
* * *
Twelve hours later, Ronnie could still taste the grilled tomatoes. Have to ask Parmie what she put on those.
The whole day after breakfast was a blur. She tried to focus on what Aardvark was showing her. Around noon he called off training for the day, saying she was going to chop her thumb off. Then he made her look at the stump of his ring finger. He drew eyes and a mouth on it, stuck on a little cowboy hat on it from some action figure, and used it as a puppet to talk about basic tool safety.
She spent the rest of the day running errands. After she forgot six items from the hardware store, in spite of having a written list, Aardvark clucked his tongue, shook his head and said, "Whatever it is, go on and go do it, for cryin' out loud."
She stopped home long enough to shower and change, and here she was, somewhere in the wilds of Decatur, using her printed-out map. Mental note: definitely get a GPS. Where the hell am I?
She finally found the address on a street off Clairmont. She looked at her watch. Right on time. She popped a mint into her mouth. The brand of chewy candy her mother once used to reward her for punctuality wasn't sold in the U.S. anymore, but Mentos were close enough. And she wanted to have fresh breath.
It was a blue frame house, with a long covered porch across the front. As soon as she set foot on the driveway, Cherie Beamish appeared from the porch, smiling broadly, her bright polka-dot bag on her shoulder. Light on her feet, she trotted down to Ronnie and hugged her. "G'day! Right on time! I don't know how you do it, I'm late for class most days."
Ronnie had insisted on driving to Decatur; it was her turn. But Cherie insisted on going out in her car, a Toyota even older than Ronnie's. It was a Tercel, just short of 200,000 miles. It was sky blue, and at some point somebody had stuck big rainbow decals on it.
All evening, Ronnie wished her watch would slow down. They went down to West Ponce and had dinner at the Brick Store Pub. Cherie treated; she said it was her turn after the backyard feed on Parmie's birthday.
Ronnie talked about getting together with Parmie, and maybe Moira. Cherie shrugged; on her it was a slow, graceful roll of the shoulders. "Right then, sure, Ron, I like your mates fine." She downed her beer in five seconds, and licked foam from her lips. "It's not so bad with just us two, though, don't ya think? Better'n a stick in the eye."
Ronnie practically inhaled her Brunswick Stew. Cherie said, "Looks like you're havin' a race."
Ronnie hesitated, and said, "My mom gave me five minutes per meal, then it was gone." She wiped her bowl with a slice of bread. "I guess every family has its quirks."
Her fish and chips came. Cherie held the vinegar bottle out of reach and said, "Try it slow this time. Your mum's not here."
"Here's your vinegar then." Cherie handed her the bottle. "It's better slow."
Ronnie took her time with her first piece of fish, and made herself wait until she knew the five minute mark was past before touching her second piece. It was better slow.
She reached the two-beer limit she'd set for herself, and switched to ginger ale. It was a fine mild evening, and after dinner they took a walk, she and Cherie. They circumnavigated downtown Decatur before making it back to Cherie's Tercel. Which, Ronnie learned, was called Loretta.
They parked back at the house off of Clairmont. Ronnie felt a reluctance to let the evening end; she said they should walk around the block.
Cherie talked about how she'd arranged to share a rented house, through an online ad. Her roommates came and went so much she hadn't really gotten to know them; it was all more anonymous than she was used to. She said, "But there's an upside, yeah; it's private. I've got my table and my laptop and books, I just shut myself up in there and study, and nobody says boo."
They'd arrived back at the house. It was a soft, gentle night. The Moon, a few days past full, was rising beyond the roof of the house, east-southeast. Ronnie knew Jupiter wasn't far behind it; hidden behind the house for now.
Her internal clock told her it was close to midnight, meaning she'd be short-changed on sleep. Totally worth it, she thought. She stood by her car, her hands in her pockets. She opened her mouth, and Cherie suddenly said, "How about one more cold one? Tinnie of beer, Mate?" She put her arm around Ronnie's shoulders. "Sip the suds with me, Ron?"
The house was mostly dark when they went through the screened porch. They stepped softly, but Cherie said, "I think they're both out. Let's grab a bevy and I'll show you my room."
The kitchen was small, and had seen better days, but the refrigerator was big and new. The beer was Yuengling lager. Ronnie remembered mentioning once that she'd developed a taste for it on a trip to Pennsylvania. She asked, "How does this compare to New Zealand beer?"
Cherie opened her can and tilted it back. She said, "Long as it gets you drunk, I don't care." This made Ronnie laugh and snort beer through her nose. They took some more cans with them.
Cherie's room reminded Ronnie of Shane's house. Hardwood floor, framed pictures on the wall; big brass bed. A wooden table served as a desk. They sat side by side; Cherie opened up her laptop and showed her some new pictures from home her family had sent.
"Do you miss home?" Ronnie felt stupid as soon as she said it.
"Christ, yes." Cherie took a long drink. "Wish I could whisk us both there. I'd show you the islands."
"Maybe I'll hit the Powerball and we can go first class."
"Ron, what are the odds we'd ever meet?"
"What do you mean? Jeez, between the beer and questions like that, it feels like I'm back in college. Pre-grad, I mean. Not grad school, like you." Ronnie drank her own beer down; wondered if she could drive. She didn't feel inclined to. If I could just stay here, that would be nice.
Cherie watched her. "You better crash here, Ron."
Ronnie felt paradoxically argumentative. "No, I can drive."
Cherie shook her head. "Now, stop bein' a sook."
"Bein' a silly thing. You just stay here, there's loads of room. Can't have you on the roads, you're a regular public menace."
Ronnie had been thinking about Cherie's question. "Cherie, we're friends, right? We're mates."
"Best mates, right."
"You had to fly like ten thousand miles, from the other side of the planet."
"Long bloody flight to Los Angeles, then another flight to here. I thought my bum would fall off."
"So it does seem like the odds were against our meeting at all, doesn't it?"
"Now, that's what I'm saying. How many people were at that Con, anyway? What are the odds we'd meet there?"
"Oh, Man, it was a record-breaking Con. Twenty-fifth anniversary; I guess that got a lot of buzz. Know how many people they had?"
"No, I don't know, I just asked you." Cherie's dark lips curved up when she smiled.
"Yes, you did. Uh, it was forty-five thousand! Now, at an average of probably a good hundred apiece, that's a nice chunk of change, plus there's the booth rentals. There's some real money involved there."
"Forty-five thousand people, Ron." Cherie touched her hand. "I'm glad I got to that spot, that day, to watch you go all Emma Peel on that strange little man. I'd walk all those ten thousand miles, if you needed me to."
"Oh, come on." Ronnie stood and went to the window. "Is this the east window?" She felt her heart thumping in her chest.
Cherie stood. She said in her soft voice, "I mean it, Ron."
Ronnie leaned down, looked up out of the window. "You can just see Jupiter. I wish— I wish I could see the Southern Cross someday."
Cherie said, "I want to show it to you, Ron."
"It's on your flag."
"Who needs a flag? We could walk out together on the beach at night, Ron, and just look up. When it's real calm you can see the stars in the water. We could watch them."
"Why what?" Cherie was speaking very softly; Ronnie knew she was standing close behind her. She didn't turn around.
"But why with me? Why would you want to? Why would anybody—"
"Oh, stop it." She felt Cherie's hand on her shoulder; she turned and was looking into those dark bronze-flecked eyes.
Cherie said, "Here's why." She took Ronnie's face in her hands and kissed her.
* * *
After waking up in the big brass bed, Ronnie watched the patterns of morning sunlight on the sleeping Cherie's honey-dark skin; on her tattoo showing four stars in a cross, very low on her back. She didn't know the time, and she didn't look for her watch. She leaned over and kissed the Southern Cross, inhaling the scent of warm skin and vanilla.