Pearl Jaeger is seventeen and homeless after drugs, poverty, and addiction unraveled the life she shared with JJ, her formerly glamorous rock star mother.
This moment of happiness is fleeting; someone will take it from me.
When tragedy brings a chance to start over at an elite boarding school, she doesn’t hesitate. Yet the only salvation comes from an art teacher as troubled as Pearl, and she faces the stark reality that what she thought she wanted isn’t straightforward.
I trace the outline of my reflection in a window. I am no more than a replica of my mother. This is not the self-portrait I want to paint.
Through the friendships she forms at school—especially with Grant, a boy who shows Pearl what it means to trust and forgive—she begins to see a path not defined by her past. But when confronted with the decision to be courageous or to take the easy way forged by her mother’s failures, which direction will Pearl choose?
Sweat and tears intermingle on my mother’s face, and a cut bleeds slowly from the side of her eye.
“Pearl, we gotta get out of here.”
I’ve heard this before. We’ve had to leave abruptly from other situations: lousy boyfriends, landlords she owed rent to, roommates she’d stolen from, and the police.
As the stream of blood reaches her T-shirt, she clutches her side. Her face crumples in agony. “I think I have a broken rib. He hit me with his guitar.”
Everything about this is wrong. I want to wish it all away—go somewhere simple, clean, and faraway, like Antarctica. I’d prefer the cold to the fevered flush of fear running through me. I get to my feet and grab a pair of stretch pants from the floor. I help her into them. As she leans on me, we slowly make our way to the door. In the hall, she falls against the door frame of the bathroom.
“Come on, Mom, let’s go.” She probably needs an ambulance, but who knows how much crack—and whatever else—she has in her system, so I dare not get the police involved. We’ve gone that route, and I don’t want to see her arrested again.
“Wait. Get my purse and some clothing. Pack me a bag. No, never mind. I’ll do it,” she says hoarsely. She gets to her hands and knees and crawls back to her room.
“Mom, come on, let’s just go. I can come back for whatever you need later.” I grip my hands together, my fingers blanching as I hold on tight.
“I have to get a few things,” she whimpers.
“I’ll get them. Tell me what you need,” I say insistently, my vision starting to blur.
She shakes her head, continuing. She wants to get the crack pipe and other drug paraphernalia she has hidden in her room. This scenario is uncomfortably familiar.
I shift from foot to foot. My stomach clenches with anxiety. What if Darren comes back?
Part of me fears what other damage he might do, but the bitter part is that if he comes back with drugs, she’ll do them instead of getting medical attention.
“Mom, let’s go.”
She must have used the bed to pull herself up and stand, because she emerges, staggering on her feet, dragging a duffel bag. “Why don’t you grab some clothes too?”
I scoot past her and stuff a couple of outfits, underwear, and Vogue into my backpack. I scrounged whatever I could this past month, saving every penny, even the ones I found on the ground, to get the latest issue, my lone extravagance. “Ready?” I say when I step back into the hall.
She nods. Step-by-step, we make our way down two of the three flights. She droops on the top of the last one.
“Do you have any money?” she asks.
“No,” I answer honestly. I tried getting a job, but no luck. I com- plain that I have a young face, and well-meaning adults assure me that when I get older, I’ll be thankful. It doesn’t help me now. I inherited my mother’s youthful look, the one she had before drugs and alcohol took their toll. But I’m already taller than her, five seven to her five three, my father’s genes. I’m slender, but that probably has more to do with the scarcity of a hot meal than anything else. She occasionally reminds me I have my father’s gray eyes and his height, like my DNA insults her.
She mumbles something about going to the bank, but all she’ll find are overdraft fees and denied credit. I’m afraid to tell her.
“Go out to the street. See if you recognize anyone. Tell them I need to see them,” she orders me.
I bound down the stairs. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust as I emerge into the bright summer sun. I look up and down the sidewalk. A homeless guy perches on top of a newspaper box, and a kid rides by on a bike. Finding someone my mother knows is a sketchy task. I retreat inside.
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“Pearl, I need to get out of here.” Her cheek rests against the grimy wall, and the gash on the other side still bleeds, staining her yellow T-shirt crimson around the shoulder. “Go across the street to the apartment with the Christmas wreath on the door. Knock six times.” She lifts her knuckles and beats them, weakly, on the floor. “Ask for Pauline.”
The building across the street houses a pimp and an assortment of women who emerge, raccoon-like, around dusk. I’ve met Pauline, long limbed, with scars on her arms that she doesn’t try to hide. My mother has gone over there a few times and returned with fifty, and sometimes a hundred, bucks.
I knock as directed. Vinyl blinds part, and a pair of bloodshot eyes appear. The door opens a crack. I seize the opportunity.
“I’m looking for Pauline. My mom, across the street, needs to see her. It’s urgent.”
The door opens just enough to let me slip through into a dark foyer. Something like cinnamon hangs in the air, but mostly I smell cigarettes and defeat.
A woman about my mom’s age, wearing a silk robe, leads me back to the kitchen.
“Midge. Says she’s lookin’ for Pauline. Somethin’ about her mother across the street.”
A giant of a man sits at the kitchen table, playing solitaire. He looks up at me and licks his lips. “Whatcha looking for, sweetheart?”
I swallow hard. Leave it to my mother to put me in this situation. I draw a breath. “Janet, across the street, Pauline’s friend, she just needs her help real quick.” I sense that if I bring any word of trouble to the table, they’ll escort me to the door.
Midge looks at me full on, his eyes simultaneously hungry and concerned. Finally, he jerks his head toward the lady who answered the door. She gives me a sharp look before exiting.
“Pauline will be right with you,” he says gruffly before returning to his game.
With the toe of my boot, I trace the lines between the tiles on the floor like a maze, trying to find a way out of feeling vulnerable and helpless.
I hear Pauline’s smoky voice from down the hall before she appears. She greets me with her arms opened wide. Even though we’ve only met a few times, a long embrace is her customary greeting.
As we exit the shady building, Pauline asks, “You still collecting those magazines?”
“I’ll be sure to save some for you. Sometimes the girls leave them in the house.”
I hope I’m not still hanging around here by the time the next issue comes out.
I jaywalk through traffic, filling Pauline in on what happened. I worry Darren may have returned.
When Pauline pushes open the door to the building, my mother is where I left her, but with her eyes closed. At first, I fear she fainted, but she’s probably been up at least twenty-four hours, if not longer. Pauline, gentle as ever, strokes my mother’s leg to wake her up. For a vague instant, I picture Pauline tending babies or the elderly. She doesn’t belong in this harsh life.
“Pauline,” my mom says, brightening.
“Hiya, JJ, how ya doin’?” she coos softly.
“Well, come on,” Pauline says, wrapping her arms underneath my mother’s to help her up.
“Where we going?” Pauline asks, but before my mother answers,
Pauline suggests, “How about the Constance House up on Riverside?” I get the sense she’s done this before. Constance House is a battered women’s shelter—a place I doubt will abide my mother’s lifestyle—and as such, I expect Janet to protest, but apparently Pauline’s caring manner is all the convincing she needs.
“Pearl, you have a towel or something? She can’t go in a cab like this. She needs shoes too.”
I run upstairs. Each step reminds me that Darren might be back any second. I grab a pair of flip-flops and look in the bathroom cabinet for a towel. There aren’t any clean, so I pull a worn pillowcase off the bed and race back down to meet them outside.
“Thatta girl. Thanks,” Pauline says as she helps my mother into the flip-flops. Janet’s eyes are nearly closed as she leans heavily against Pauline’s shoulder.
It’s times like these I’d also like to give myself over to Pauline’s capable hands, the hands of a mother, sister, caretaker. Instead, she hails a cab and hands me a twenty.
“Look after her, Pearl,” she says before I close the cab door. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, but how can she expect a kid to look after a grown woman when neither one knows how to take care of herself?
The cab drops us off on a side street in front of an anonymous brick building. A woman with tight curls confidently helps us inside. I flash to a magazine clipping of my mother holding her hand up to the camera as she emerged from a limo, back when the Shrapnels were big. It was rock star glitz and glamour. Now it’s just grit.
During her teens, Deirdre Riordan Hall traveled throughout the United States and Europe, developing a love for stories and a desire to connect with worlds—imagined or real—on the page. She has written Sugar, To the Sea, Surfaced, and the Follow Your Bliss series. When not spending time with her family, writing, or traveling, Hall is at the beach, pretending to be a mermaid.
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