After taking Sweets' book out, and then properly securing my gun case - which means locking it and shoving it under the bed hoping no one will find it there - I consider my other luggage. Its surface, once shiny and silvery, is now scratched and dented. This one once belonged to Uncle Charlie, and it came to me like this. Even though mother hates it she’s practical, if not outright frugal, so why buy something new when the old one is perfectly serviceable? Numerous labels and stickers bear silent witness to trips to faraway places. Some of the names and locations are… exotic. There’s one half-peeled label in red, yellow, and black, with Cyrillic lettering. According to the internet, it's a real authentic Chernobyl post office tag. The sticker next to it, ‘Mars in three days', might be fake though. Unless it's not referring to the red planet, but to the small community in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Yeah, I looked that one up.
A glance at my phone tells me it’s almost two. Which means ‘she’ is going to give it a shot, even when we’re a few days early. It’s with the gravest of anticipation that I turn the silver suitcase on its side, open it, and fish out a light blue blouse. I did put it in last, only because I was told to do so. Mom made me iron the thing in the last motel we stayed at. Iron it!
The good news? It’s not too crumpled. The bad news? It’s hideous. But as every teen knows, there’s no accounting for taste, especially when it comes to parents. I drop my Grateful Dead T-shirt on the bed next to Sweets’ book and put on the blouse. When I check my reflection in the bathroom mirror I look all prim and proper, so I undo the two top buttons. I swap my boots for a well-worn pair of sneakers though, commando-boots might leave a wrong 'first impression'.
Tired of being a good girl I return to the bed and flop down, remove the brown paper and check out Sweets’ book. I feel a bit guilty because I’ve been lugging it around for months now. Spare magazines, leftover ammo, and oily cloth have left their marks on the brown paper, and the stains have seeped into the cover. When Sweets gave it to me she told me not to read it, and frankly, I've been a bit busy. I’m pretty sure it’s a promise I otherwise wouldn’t have kept. I guess Sweets expected me not to. Sometimes I suspect she knows me better than I know myself. Would I have felt any remorse? Probably not, because I love books and I'm bad at feeling guilty. Another thing she knows.
Books... Now and again I own a book which I lug around for months, and once I’ve finished it the sixth or seventh time I try to find a good home for it. Mom’s Ford didn’t come with a bookshelf and Mom ain't going to install one on my behalf. I could read books digitally, as on my phone, but there’s nothing like the feel of paper, the smell of ink, the weight of the paper 'brick' you're holding in your hands. I feel sorry for the books I had to abandon over the years. I hope they have found many happy homes.
This one's a novel by Merzhyn Emris. The cover is right out there, with a skinny bitch in some gothic bodice, holding a flaming sword, and a tall, ripped guy bending over as if he's about to kiss her. Of course, there’s the obligatory poorly drawn wolf at her feet, a wrought iron gate in the background - topped by four skulls - and rose bushes framing the scene. If a cover means anything then this is yet another sappy magic fantasy romance. Even the title is spot on: 'Worlds of Hearts'. I’m a complete sucker for that stuff, and Sweets knows.
I sigh and check out the last pages for the ending. I’m not going to read this thing unless it has a decent wrap with no cliffhanger in sight. And the girl must get the boy in the end, obviously. As I turn to the last page something slips out and drops on the grubby carpet. Two faces look up at me.
I pick it up. It’s an old photo.
A younger version of me is sitting behind the wheel of an old sedan. Sweets is standing in the rear, leaning over me and pointing at something outside the shot. She looks thinner and smaller and older than she should have been. I can’t see what she's pointing at, but we’re both smiling. The smiles look strangely mature, adult expressions plastered over children's faces. When I flip the photo over I discover the writing on the backside.
Someone - Sweets I assume - used a red pen and wrote down the motto of the Virgo Mortis, the Maidens of Death. 'Ope Domine Santa Muerte in Deo Speramus', it says, followed by a smiley. My back itches and I have to scratch.
We are the Maidens of Death, Sweets and I. We share some early history, the odd training session, and we've been together on missions when Sweets was still wearing braces. She's better at the martial stuff, I'm the better shot.
Below the motto, Sweets added two numbers: the first one is ‘61’ followed by a question mark, the second number is ‘59’, three times underlined. Below that she drew a heart symbol and added a cryptic message. 'PS. I love you. Just don’t die, for now. C. PS2. Don’t. Trust. Anyone. PS3. Not even me.'
The numbers are an answer, but to what question?
I study the photo again. I don’t recognize the image, the location, the car. I can’t remember any pictures of me and Sweets together except for a couple of selfies last summer, which I lost when I got my new phone and a new account. Perhaps I should ask Sweets to send me some... I smile at myself. It seems I'm getting old enough to become sentimental.
Though expected, the knock on the door of my room is still shockingly loud. My heart is doing over two hundred when I answer with a shaky "Yes?"
"Eleanore? Can I come in?" she asks. As if that would stop her. It's her, after all.
I stuff the picture between some pages, then drop the book on the bed. "Come in, Mom," I reply, "the door -"
She enters before I can finish.
"- is open."
Mom managed to shower and put on a long skirt. She even put her hair up. With those thick-rimmed glasses and the brown briefcase in her left hand, she looks, to be honest, boring. Quite fashionable... for an office worker in the fifties. As a teacher, her outfit suggests a kind of stuffed, old-fashioned, boring reliability. Tough. Fair. And completely and utterly uninspiring. It makes her look much older, and I never understood why she does that to herself. I guess I miss the point.
"It's Ellen, Mom. Ellen."
"I know, I know." Her eyes scan the room, then narrow when she spots the book on the bed. "Well well... You found another one." She reaches for the book, but before she can pick it up I grab it and hide it behind my back like a little kid.
"Mine. You can read it when I'm done."
A manicured eyebrow goes up. A hint of a smile quickly makes way for a deep and serious frown. "You shouldn't waste your time with those." She shakes her head disapprovingly.
I shrug. "I like them." I know what she's thinking, this isn't the first time we have this conversation. So yes, I've been wasting my time reading novels. I should have been studying. I should -
"You should brush your hair, And put on a blouse. We want to leave a good impression," Mom says.
"A blouse, Mom?" I ask innocently.
"Of course a blouse, Eleanore. You know... Oh." She smiles, taken a little aback. Just a little. "There still might be some hope for you after all, young lady. Stand up and show me."
"I keep the book."
I suffer her stare in silence until she gives in and nods. I've bagged this one, so for now I'll be a good little girl. I turn around, slowly, and she nods approvingly.
"Can't see a thing, Mom. Though you know, they're going to find out soon enough."
She waves in royal dismissal. "I know, I know. Now brush your hair and get ready, we'll leave in five. It would have been better if you kept it black, but that's too late now, I guess. And..." - she frown - "who taught you to iron?"
She did, but I let it slide.
Mom checks her phone, then nods and starts leaving my room but halts, one hand on the doorknob, looking over her shoulder back at me. "Four now. And Eleanore?"
"It would be nice to finish the full term for once. We need the money, especially after you, well, the way you dealt with your issues the last time. They say he should be getting out of the hospital any time soon."
I shrug. He's going to jail anyway. On a stretcher.
"Maybe we should go back to collect and... Nah. Better not, I guess, you might want to try to finish the job. And button up, all the way up."
Oh, we're not going back. She's only 'reminding' me of the mess I made on our last job.
Mom throws one last glance at my faded jeans and dusty sneakers but offers no further comments before leaving the room. Her voice slips around the corner and tells me to hurry up. "Make haste, Eleanore. Down in three."
"Thanks, Mom. And it's Ellen, Mom. Ellen," I tell the empty air. Not that it matters.
In the bathroom I reach for my brush yet decide against it, you can't improve on perfection. I consider unbuttoning one extra but... nah. That would make me look cheap. To compensate I roll up the sleeves, making sure to add some extra wrinkles and creases. I do consider a small tear, or perhaps a couple of stains, but that might be too much. Though I'd be tempted if I had some pizza at hand. Of course, pizza is something else Mom dislikes. It figures.
The blue of the blouse and the purple of my hair clash, but that's because it's a blouse. If I would be wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt in light blue I'm certain it would agree with me. Would look better, too. I smile at myself in the mirror and decide I look parent-level passable before I leave my room.
And dream of pizza, all the way down.