The Thing About Leftovers (2 page)

BOOK: The Thing About Leftovers
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Chapter 2

Whenever I have
a bad day at school, I stop at my aunt Liz's house afterward. I walk right by Chrysanthemum Court—where Aunt Liz lives—on my way home anyway. But even if I didn't, I'd walk far out of my way to get there. Somehow Aunt Liz always figures out what's squashing me, and she's usually able to lift it, set me straight, and fluff me back up again—like one of her decorator pillows.

That afternoon, Aunt Liz was working at the desk in her front window. As soon as she spotted me through the window, she jumped up and hurried out to meet me. She was much fizzier than I, I noticed. And prettier, too: Aunt Liz is tall and thin, with long, heavy dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes and eyelashes.

I was named after Aunt Liz on account of her brother is my dad. He is also dark and handsome. But he married a light-haired, light-skinned lady with green eyes: my mother. The result was, of course, me.

I am pretty weird looking: My body is way too skinny for my normal-size head, which is covered with strawberry-blond hair that is more strawberry than blond. I have lots of freckles, especially on and around my nose, which has a permanent bump on the bridge—thanks to soccer balls, kickballs,
volleyballs, basketballs—you get the picture. My eyes are green. I think they're okay, but oh, how I wish I had Aunt Liz's dark hair and skin! Sometimes I wish I
were
Aunt Liz.

“I was hoping I'd see you today,” Aunt Liz said, giving me a little squeeze.

“How come?” I asked.

“My copy of
Southern Living
just arrived,” Aunt Liz said, holding up the magazine, “and in it is everything you need to know about the
Southern Living
Cook-Off this year!”

It had been my dream to win the
Southern Living
Cook-Off ever since I'd first laid eyes on the magazine. Cook-off winners were announced in that very first issue I saw, and their winning recipes were in there, too—all delicious! That same issue had also featured Aunt Liz's new sunroom and the garden beyond. (Aunt Liz is an interior designer; she decorates most all the fanciest houses in Lush Valley.) Yep, my very own aunt Liz is practically famous thanks to
Southern Living
. I'd loved the magazine ever since.

“I'm Southern, right?” I asked.

Aunt Liz laughed. “Yes, honey, you are as Southern as grits.”

“So I'm a Southern Italian?”

“No,” Aunt Liz said. “You're a Southern American with some Italian heritage.”

I clapped my gloved hands together. “My cheese grits! I should send
Southern Living
the recipe for my cheese grits!”

Aunt Liz nodded and said, “Well, we can't make important decisions like this on an empty stomach. C'mon in and we'll find you something to eat—it's freezing out here!”

I followed her into the house, admiring the way her long, drapey sweater floated around her. I wished I had a long, drapey sweater like Aunt Liz's.

I also wished I had a kitchen like hers. For me, there is no better place on earth than Aunt Liz's kitchen. It's big and roomy, but somehow still feels warm and cozy. There are lots of windows and plants and cookbooks; the walls are the color of butter, and it always smells sweet, like there's a cake in the oven. I'm considering filming my TV show there.

As usual, while Aunt Liz went to work fixing a snack for me, I picked up the kitchen phone and dialed my mom's office.

“Cecily Russo,” my mother chirped.

“Hi, Mom,” I said. “I'm at Aunt Liz's house.”

“All right. How was your day?”

“Fine,” I said, because this is what I say every day, no matter what.

“Just a sec,” I heard my mother say in a muffled voice that let me know she had covered the phone with her hand and wasn't talking to me.

I waited for a few seconds and then asked, “Red wine vinegar chicken again tonight?” I was hoping—hard—that she'd say no.

“No, I don't think so. . . . Yes, I know—I'll just be a sec,” Mom said.

“Are you talking to me?” I asked.

“Yes, you: no chicken,” Mom said as I heard the door to her office click closed in the background.

“So I get to cook?” I perked right up at that possibility.

“Uh, no . . . I've invited Keene to join us for dinner, so I'll be cooking,” Mom said.

Keene Adams is my mom's boyfriend and I hate it when he comes to dinner. For starters, it means that I don't get to cook, and that's just for starters.

“Oh,” I said quietly. “Well . . . maybe I could just stay here.” I looked over at Aunt Liz, wearing a question on my face.

Aunt Liz nodded.

“Did she invite you to stay?” Mom asked, because she's always worried about me inviting myself places, which I never do, except with Aunt Liz and she doesn't mind.

“Yes,” I said.

“Yes, what?” Mom said.

“Yes, ma'am,” I said, because Mom is big on
ma'ams
and
sirs
and
pleases
and
thank-yous
, and manners in general.

After everything was settled and I'd put the phone back, I shucked my coat and sat down at Aunt Liz's kitchen table. Aunt Liz placed a tall glass of sweet tea and a Benedictine sandwich in front of me—Benedictine is a thick spread made from cream cheese, cucumbers, onions, and mayonnaise that was created right here in Louisville, at Benedict's Tea Room.

I smiled. The fact is I could probably live on sweet tea alone, but I could
surely
live on sweet tea and Benedictine because . . . well, sweet tea is
sweet tea
, and Benedictine tastes so light and clean and fresh, like spring in your mouth! Yum!

“Thank you,” I said.

Aunt Liz nodded as she sat down across from me and seemed to wait for me to say more.

“Keene is coming to dinner,” I announced, crinkling my nose.

“I kind of figured that,” Aunt Liz said, smiling. Then her face went all serious as she leaned over the table and asked, “Why don't you like him, Fizzy?”

I shrugged.

“I bet he likes you,” she offered.

“He doesn't,” I informed her.

Aunt Liz's dark eyebrows knitted together above her pretty nose. “What makes you think that?”

No way was I going to tell her. No way. What if I told her and then she agreed with Keene? What if Aunt Liz stopped liking me?

Aunt Liz's face relaxed as she leaned back in her chair. “You don't have to tell me if you don't want to.”

I took a bite of my sandwich.

“Okay,” Aunt Liz said, picking up the magazine again and flipping through the glossy pages. “Recipes must be mailed by February fifteenth. Each recipe will be tried in the
Southern Living
test kitchen and finalists will be notified by mail no later than June first.”

I swallowed and said, “I want to get my recipes in as soon as possible . . . so they can try them and get back to me—quick.”

“That doesn't mean they will,” Aunt Liz said. “Even if they like them, they'll have to compare them against thousands of other entries.”

I took another bite of my sandwich.

“There are five categories in the cook-off,” Aunt Liz read aloud from the magazine.

I chewed and nodded for her to go ahead.

“The categories are Your Best Recipe, Family Favorites, Southern Desserts, Healthy and Good for You, and Party Starters.”

“I'm entering all of them,” I informed her.

Aunt Liz smiled and nodded like she'd known it all along. Happy, excited feelings filled the kitchen, and I wished I could stay . . . forever.

Chapter 3

I call my
Sports Illustrated
alarm clock “Genghis,” as in Genghis Khan, dreaded emperor of the Mongol Empire, who once said, “I am the punishment of God . . . If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” Believe me, Genghis is a terrible punishment who came disguised as a birthday present from my mom's boyfriend, Keene. Genghis might as well punch me in the stomach to wake me up every morning, because I always feel sick when he starts screaming. That Friday morning was no different. But then, I feel sick a lot.

The sickness started when Mom and I moved to Lush Valley last May—right after school let out, and after Mom and Dad's divorce was final. Since Dad got the house in the divorce, we had to move. But the sickness didn't start right away. No, at first, I'd been happy. Being in a new place seemed exciting, adventurous, almost like a vacation. But after a while, the excitement wore off. It was like that time at the fair when I'd had my fill of funnel cake and cotton candy and I'd ridden the Tilt-A-Whirl one too many times: Suddenly all the hot, sweet scents made me feel pukey and I just wanted to go home. Then and now. I missed my dad, my old house, my old neighborhood, my
old friends, my old school—everything. That's when the sickness came.

And even though my parents had lived apart for more than a year by then, and even though they didn't seem to like each other—at all—I still told myself that they'd eventually get back together. And then I'd get to go home. I even believed it. I believed it right up until my dad got remarried last August—and I think Mom might've believed it, too, because I saw tears well up in her eyes when I told her that Dad was getting married.

But now I understand that my parents aren't ever going to get back together. I blame my dad's new wife, Suzanne, for this. Oh, sure, I know Dad's at fault, too, and at first, I blamed him
and
Suzanne and was mad at them both. But it's hard to stay mad at someone you love the way I love my dad. Suzanne, on the other hand . . . well, I've been able to stay mad at her just fine. (The family counselor we saw—a few times—explained all of this and said it was completely normal for me to blame Suzanne, even though none of it was Suzanne's fault or Dad's fault or Mom's fault. He said that
no one
was at fault. Over and over again. But I figure it
has
to be somebody's fault—because I'm pretty upset.)

Anyway, this morning when Genghis started screaming at me, I sat up in bed, reached over, and gave him a good, hard
WHAP!
I eyed the clothes hanging on my closet door. I knew they weren't the “right” clothes, but even so, they were the right clothes for me. Well, except for the same plain jeans that Mom's been buying on sale at the end of each season for my entire life. I've tried to show Mom the error of her ways, but
she just says stuff like “Things aren't important and what other people think about our things certainly isn't important.
People
are important, and we only moved to Lush Valley because it's the best school district!” I'm pretty sure nobody else around here thinks that way—Lush Valley is often called “Luxe Valley” due to all the large, luxurious homes here. We don't live in any of those. We live in a small, two-bedroom town house, with one full bathroom upstairs—which I share with Mom—and a half bathroom downstairs.

I dragged myself out of bed and found Mom blow-drying her hair in the bathroom.

When she saw me, she turned the dryer off and said, “I'm running late.”

My stomach did a Tilt-A-Whirl. “What happened?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Mom said.

“Why are we running late? Why are we
always
running late?”

Mom stiffened. “I'm doing my best, Fizzy. I'm trying to be the best mother, housekeeper, saleswoman, girlfriend, and friend I know how to be. It takes extra effort—and time—to be the best at one thing, let alone five things. It's hard. And I don't appreciate being questioned by my own daughter.”

“Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry,” I said, and I felt relieved when Mom turned the blow-dryer back on.

• • •

I hurried through the empty hallway as fast as my legs would carry me even though I knew I was too late. Again.

I was right: When I reached my homeroom, the door was
locked. I could see Mr. Moss and the rest of my science class through the little slice of window in the door, but when I knocked, Mr. Moss merely glanced at me, shook his head at the boy sitting nearest the door, and went on teaching. That meant I had to go down to the principal's office. Again.

Mrs. Warsaw, the principal, seemed to be waiting for me. She wore a tight look of disapproval and a navy skirt suit with pearls. When she saw me, she uncrossed her bony arms, said in a clipped voice, “Come with me, please, Elizabeth,” and took off walking.

I followed her into her office and sat down when she pointed at a chair.

Mrs. Warsaw harrumphed into the seat behind her spotless desk and opened a folder. “Elizabeth, do you realize this is your ninth tardy?”

“No, ma'am,” I said.

Mrs. Warsaw looked up from the folder. “Well,
it is
,” she said, like I didn't believe her.

I believed her. Really, I did. “I'm sorry,” I said.

Mrs. Warsaw sighed. “Why are you late?”

I thought about this. “I . . . I don't know . . . but my mom says she's doing her best.”

Mrs. Warsaw's eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to blame your mother for your tardiness? Perhaps I should call her.”

“Please don't do that,” I said quietly. “She's very busy.”

Mrs. Warsaw looked satisfied as she slapped the folder shut.

I tilted my head back and blinked at the speckled rectangles
on the ceiling. I was trying to use gravity to force back the tears in my eyes, because I don't cry in public. Sometimes I want to, but I don't do it.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me, young lady?”

“No, ma'am,” I said quickly, jerking my chin down to stare at Mrs. Warsaw through shocked-wide eyes.

“Well. From now on, Elizabeth, I expect you to be on time. Is that understood?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Get yourself an alarm clock. And use it.” Mrs. Warsaw stood. I didn't bother telling her about Genghis, which was just as well, as she continued, “You'll receive a tardy slip on your way out.”

I pressed my—unexcused—pink tardy slip against the window so that Mr. Moss could see it when I knocked on the door. Again.

• • •

An hour later, during English class, a note arrived with my name on it and it turned out that the guidance counselor, Mrs. Sloan, wanted to see me.

Mrs. Sloan looked up from her messy desk when I knocked—at least I
think
there was a desk under there somewhere—and smiled like she was downright thrilled to see me. “Come in, Fizzy,” she said. “Come right in.”

Mrs. Sloan was the opposite of Mrs. Warsaw: She had long, wild, curly gray hair and wore loose layers of clothes over her soft curves, with lots of big, bold jewelry—something about her made me think gypsy.

I did as I was told and shut the door behind me—so that no one would see me in the guidance counselor's office.

“Please sit down,” Mrs. Sloan said, coming out from behind her desk and motioning toward a small round table with three chairs.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I don't . . . um . . . need to be here.”

Mrs. Sloan's eyebrows moved up but her smile stayed put. “And why is that?”

“I don't have . . . you know . . .
problems
.”

“Everybody has problems,” Mrs. Sloan said easily.

“I don't,” I insisted.

Mrs. Sloan perched on the edge of her desk. “You don't think you have any problems? Do you think that's a problem?”

“Are you trying to
make
problems for me?” I asked. “Because I don't need that—I already . . .” I stopped talking and dropped my eyes to the cheerful area rug.

“Already have enough problems?” Mrs. Sloan guessed. “That's okay. Everybody has problems. We can talk about it—maybe I can help.”

Out of desperation, I blurted, “I've already seen a family counselor and he said that I'm a perfectly healthy, perfectly normal girl who just needs time to adjust.”

“Great,” Mrs. Sloan said. “And how do you think that's going?”

“Fine. I'm fine. It's all fine.”

“Then why can't we talk about it?” Mrs. Sloan asked.

I gave her an exasperated sigh. “Because that wouldn't be polite . . . or ladylike.”

“So, a polite lady doesn't . . . ?” Mrs. Sloan held up her hands, shrugged, and waited for me to finish her sentence.

I huffed, “Doesn't finish other people's sentences, doesn't discuss unpleasant or private stuff, and doesn't get all . . .
emotional
—because that makes other people uncomfortable.”

The smile slipped from Mrs. Sloan's face as she drew back, surprised. For a few seconds, she just stared at me like I was a new species she'd never before encountered. Then she nodded her understanding.

I turned to go.

“Fizzy?” Mrs. Sloan said as my hand closed around the doorknob.

I looked at her.

“This is one place you don't have to worry about being polite. You don't have to worry about anyone else's feelings or discomfort. You can say whatever you want without fear of judgment or consequences. And nothing you say will ever leave this room.”

“I'm fine,” I said. “Tell everybody.” And then I went back to class.

For the rest of the day, I wondered what I might've said or done that had resulted in Mrs. Sloan sending for me. The tardiness was all I could come up with. So I knew I couldn't be late to school anymore.

BOOK: The Thing About Leftovers
6.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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