Lutie Painter had never skipped school before. Not once. Never faked being sick, never lied about where she was going. She had friends who averaged a day or even two days a week when they shrugged off school and did something else. Not Lutie.
But the dawn phone call from Saravette had gone through Lutie's heart like birdshot. Saravette used a telephone only if she needed something. It was never Lutie she called. Lutie was excited and frightened. In a minute, she was up and dressed, telling lies and racing out the door. She caught the city but north instead of the school bus west.
Lutie's aunts would never have allowed her to do this. When her aunts were forced to refer to Saravette, their lips pinched and their voices tightened. A person on crack and crystal meth was not rational or safe. Her aunts rarely referred to Saravette as their sister.
Lutie had not stopped to think about clothing. She liked a different look every day of the week. Yesterday had been slinky: black and silver and armloads of bracelets. Today was pink: pink and white book bag on her back, little rose-puff purse with a ribbon shoulder strap, cute little pink sneakers and sweet cotton-candy-pink hoodie. She probably looked twelve. Did this make her more or less safe?
The bus route into the city was long and the bus driver did everything he could to shorten it. He was definitely a NASCAR fan. He stopped with neck-snapping lurches when somebody signaled from the curb, and then roared forward with such disregard for traffic that Lutie, also a race fan, had to close her eyes.
Lutie's grandmother had ridden this very bus to work six days a week. Imagine doing this twice a day all your life. Lutie studied her fellow riders. Anybody taking a bus must have the same daydream: to own a car. It required such patience to ride a bus. Why was patience a virtue? What was the good thing about patience? It was impatience that paid off. Impatient people got stuff done. Patient people were still standing there waiting.
She thought about Saravette, who didn't have virtues.
On the phone, Saravette's voice had been thready and weak, as if she were ill. But one sentence had been strong and sharp. "You have to know," said Saravette suddenly.
And when Saravette disconnected, Lutie did have to know. What, after all this time, did Saravette need to tell her?
The bus sped through remnants of farmland. In the last ten years, the population of the county had tripled. Every time you turned around, bulldozers had cleared another mile of woods. A minute later a network of paved roads crisscrossed the red dirt. An hour after that, two hundred new houses with identical landscaping were on the market. All those families needed stores and banks and fast food. Buildings leaped into place, as if they had been waiting in the wings like actors. The original village of Court Hill was hard to find, swallowed by this flood of housing and schools and churches and Walmarts.
The bus roared past sprawling malls, vast retirement villages and strings of town-house developments, each with its pretend British name--Therrington and Land Brooke and Churchill Meade. It stopped at medical centers and factories and the campuses of corporate offices. Everything was tidy. Each prim little tree had a careful donut of pine straw mulch. The buildings and landscaping and charming low brick walls were so similar that Lutie could not tell where she was.
Like my heart, she thought. I can't tell where it is either.
She never liked thinking about Saravette. She never liked picturing Saravette.
It would take an hour to get to the far side of the city, so Lutie slid her shoulders out of her book bag and riffled through the contents, thinking she might use the hour fruitfully and master a few facts for chemistry. Lutie loved school. Actually, everybody loved school, but most kids were sorry that school had to go and include class. Lutie used to feel sheepish for studying so much. This year, she was mostly in AP and honors classes, though, and it was easier to learn when the rest of the class liked learning too.
The bus was now on a boulevard, miles of island dividers planted with a single row of crape myrtle trees and beds of pansies eternally smiling at traffic. Somewhere in this neighborhood, Lutie's grandmother had kept house for a family she was very fond of. They'd paid MeeMaw better than most housekeepers were paid. They hadn't paid into Social Security, because they never thought of it, and MeeMaw had never thought of it either, and in fact had never paid taxes, because she was vague on how that was supposed to happen. When the couple moved away to be closer to their grandchildren, MeeMaw had nothing. Lutie's aunts had arranged Supplemental Security Income, which provided a few hundred dollars a month, and then they had paid the rest of the bills themselves. There hadn't been many. MeeMaw's joys had been church, cooking, the front porch and, above all, Lutie.
The bus approached a swell of tall office buildings, and most of the remaining passengers got off. The strangers had been a comfort. Now Lutie's courage collapsed. So did the city. The buildings got lower and weaker. The sidewalks were cracked and the streets full of litter. Stores existed here and there, half of them boarded up or wrapped in crime tape.
It was difficult to tell if the parked cars were abandoned or if people actually drove those dented paintless hulks. There weren't many people. Even the grim city housing projects seemed empty. Maybe if you were the loitering type, you weren't up yet.
The only other passenger now was a skinny young man with an excess of tattoos. His eyes were closed and his head waved on its stalk, as if his neck were only a temporary connection to his body.
Lutie counted down the streets. Ninth. Eighth. Seventh. This is it, she thought. She raised her hand to touch the stop sensor, then panicked. Forget it. She couldn't get off here. She'd ride to the end of the route instead, safe inside the bus, pay the driver again, and take it all the way home.
And then she saw Saravette leaning against a telephone pole.
Lutie realized that she had not actually expected Saravette to be here. Saravette, who forgot everything or lied about it to start with, was not usually where she was supposed to be.
Lutie's lungs filled in little spurts, as if she were breathing in code. She signaled for a stop. The brakes on the bus squealed. Lutie tottered down the long empty aisle. The driver raised his eyebrows and nodded toward the neighborhood. "You know what you're doing?"
Lutie had no idea what she was doing.
"This is not a good place," said the driver, which was certainly true.
Lutie pointed at Saravette. "She's waiting for me."
The driver took in the sight of Saravette. Thirty years old, looked eighty. Sunken cheeks from lost teeth. Tattoos and piercings no longer brave and sassy, but pitiful. Wearing two sweaters on an already hot morning. Both dirty.
My mother, thought Lutie.
Impossible. The wreck on the sidewalk could not be related to her.
"You got a cell phone?" said the driver.
"You worried, you call nine-one-one. But remember, around here, they're slow."
Lutie would have expected that around here, the police would be fast. Maybe on this block, the police had surrendered.
Carefully, as if the steps were made of glass, Lutie got off the bus. Every other time, the instant his passenger's foot hit the pavement, the driver's foot hit the accelerator. This time he waited and kept the door open. Lutie loved him for that. She forced herself to walk over to Saravette, who gave her a light smelly hug. Lutie cringed.
Saravette led the way to a side street, and then the bus did leave, spewing a puff of diesel thick enough for breakfast. Saravette was talking, but Lutie could not follow the sense of it. The mumbled words did not connect.
They went into a scary coffee shop, where they sat among scary people. Lutie could not touch her mug. Somebody else's fingerprints were greasily pasted on the china. The air-conditioning in the sad little room barely swirled the air. The grease from a million fried meals settled on her skin.
In a metal chair with a torn vinyl back, Saravette rocked herself. She never stopped talking, but it was just stuff, as if she were reading miscellaneous lines from pieces of paper blowing in the street.
Lutie tried to think of something to say, some little story to tell about what she was doing these days, but she did not know where to start. Once upon a time, Saravette had led Lutie's life. How did you get here from there? Lutie wanted to scream at her. Why didn't you just go home again? What keeps you in this horrible place?
Saravette lit a cigarette. The smoke in her lungs seemed to calm her. The next sentence was rational. "You still going to Miss Veola's church?"
Miss Veola was their pastor. She all but stalked the teenagers in her congregation, checking on their homework, their morals and their grammar. "Yes," said Lutie, relieved to be making a contribution to the conversation.
"She still comes to find me sometimes," said Saravette.
"I'm one of her lost ones," said Saravette proudly. "I surely am. Miss Veola's still preaching at me. There's a lot to preach about too. By now," said Saravette, laughing, "I've broken all the commandments."
Lutie's head hummed like the struggling window unit while Saravette rocked and smiled. "You've broken all the commandments?" whispered Lutie. One in the middle of the list, say? Thou shalt not kill?
Saravette laughed and nodded and rocked.
She's using the Ten Commandments as a metaphor, Lutie told herself, as if the diner were honors English class and the teacher were discussing literature. Saravette has not broken all the commandments. She did not kill anybody. This is just another fib. Saravette's probably forgotten what the Ten Commandments even are.
Saravette put out her cigarette and immediately lit it again. For the first time, her eyes met Lutie's and stayed focused. "You have to know something," she said quietly. It was not the voice of a crazy person to a stranger. It was the voice of a mother to her daughter.
Panic filled Lutie Painter. It was bad enough to know that this sad smelly sack of failed person was her mother. But whatever had made Saravette telephone Lutie instead of the aunts and the pastor who continually and grimly came to Saravette's rescue was probably something Lutie didn't want to know.
Saravette had a coughing fit. Her skin took on a gray tinge as the cough choked its way out of her throat. The other customers glared, as if they'd be perfectly willing to choke Saravette themselves for making such a racket. Lutie gripped her purse hard, trying to calm her trembling fingers. This was not a place where people should see you break down.
When the cough ended, Saravette looked like a ghost of herself. The two of them sat in silence. Saravette lit another cigarette and continued to rock and smile.
Lutie imagined Saravette rocking and smoking and smiling as she broke each commandment. Swear? Check.
"I skipped school," Lutie said loudly. "What did you need to tell me? Why did you beg me to come?"
Saravette turned away. She still had a beautiful profile. She stopped breathing, whether to suppress a coughing fit or to steel herself to talk, Lutie did not know.
"Give me a minute," whispered Saravette. "Then I'll be ready." She signaled one of the scary guys at the counter. The man--who looked hardly older than Lutie--hooked his thumbs in his sweatpants and sauntered over, smirking.
She's going to buy drugs, thought Lutie. Right now. With me sitting here.
Saravette's breathing become shallow and quick. Her eyes lit up. The man-boy sat down at the table with them. One hundred percent of Saravette's attention was on him.
She's already forgotten what she said, thought Lutie. What's murder, after all? Just one in a list of ten. Whatever.
Lutie was afraid to get up from the table, afraid to walk out of the coffee shop, let alone walk back to the bus stop. She picked up the little piece of paper on which their tab was scribbled and went over to the woman at the register. The woman was big and heavy, with breasts the size of watermelons. Lutie couldn't imagine balancing all that. She opened her wallet. Her fingers felt stiff.
The woman took the money with a sort of fury and glared at Lutie. "How you getting home, girl?"
"Bus," whispered Lutie.
"I'm going with you." The woman shifted her glare to the prep cook, who shrugged, which maybe meant that he would take over the register and maybe meant that he couldn't care less whether anybody ran the register at all.
The woman marched Lutie out of the coffee shop. Saravette did not call to her and Lutie did not say good-bye. They walked past people Lutie did not want to know better, crossed the main street in the middle of the block and stood under the little sign for the bus stop.
The bus appeared almost immediately, which was a good thing. Lutie's knees were shaking and her heart was falling out. Her mother might be a murderer.
"Thank you," whispered Lutie.
"Don't cry, honey," said the woman. "And don't come back."