First Chapter: The Accidentals

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OVERTURE

OVERTURE: (n.) The opening movement of a dramatic composition such as an opera or ballet. Traditionally, the overture is comprised of themes and motifs which will be further developed as the work progresses. —The Pocket Dictionary of Music

#

I was in the third grade when I figured out that the man who sang “Wild City” on the car radio was the same one who sent a check to my mother every month. The names weren’t exactly the same; the checks said Frederick Richards, while the DJs called him Freddy Ricks.

But I had a good ear, even then. The sigh my mother uttered when she opened his envelopes was exactly the pitch as the one I heard as she switched off the radio.

She wouldn’t talk about him even when I begged. “He’s a stranger, Rachel. Don’t dwell on him.”

But everyone else did. Freddy Ricks was nominated for a Grammy when I was ten, and his second album stayed on top of the charts for months. Growing up, I heard his music during TV ads for luxury cars and while waiting in line at Rite Aid. I read interviews he did with People and Rolling Stone.

I memorized his Wikipedia entry. My name wasn’t in it. Neither was my mother’s.

Even so, my interest was undiminished. I bought his music with my babysitting money, and I saved every magazine article I could find. I was a rabid little fan girl, and I wasn’t nice about it.

Whenever my mother and I fought, I would hang another photo of him on my bedroom wall. Or else I jammed my ear buds in, ignoring the parent sitting next to me to listen to the one I’d never met.

I was so angry about her silence. Now I would give anything to see her face one more time.

Anything.

But I’ll never have another chance to turn the music off and hear my mother’s voice. And the guy who didn’t bother to show up for almost eighteen years? Supposedly he’s waiting at the social worker’s office to meet me.

I feel sick as the van pulls up at the office for the Department of Children and Families. My hands are almost too sweaty to unlatch my seatbelt. After wiping them on my denim skirt, I fumble for the greasy door handle.

Every time I ride in this tatty vehicle, which is probably the same one that shows up to remove kids from meth labs, or whatever else social workers do, I think: This is not my life.

Although, since a week ago, it is.

Living in a state-run group home is horrifying. But it isn’t nearly as bad as hearing my mother’s oncologist tell me it didn’t matter that her cancer had responded to the chemotherapy, because she’d contracted an infection that might kill her first.

He was right. It did. And nothing will ever be the same.

“I’ll pick you up in half an hour,” the driver says as I climb numbly out into the sticky Orlando afternoon.

“Thanks,” I mumble. One-word answers are the only kind I have these days.

Tasting bile in my throat, I watch the van pull away. But I still have a choice. Although the State of Florida has recently made quite a few decisions on my behalf—and some of them are doozies—I’m pretty sure the legal code can’t force me to go inside this building.

I don’t have to meet the man who abandoned me before I was born. Instead of walking inside, I linger on the hot sidewalk, trying to think.

A thousand times I’ve pictured meeting Frederick Richards. But never once have I imagined it would happen under the fluorescent lights of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

I turn around, considering my options. The adjacent parking lot belongs to a strip mall. There’s a smoothie place, a video game store, and a nail salon. I could saunter over there and get a smoothie and a manicure instead of meeting my father. If I were a braver girl, that’s what I’d do. Take that, Frederick Richards! My life can go on without ever meeting him. I’ll turn eighteen in a month. Then my social-services nightmare will end, anyway.

He’ll sit there in Hannah’s office, looking at his watch every couple of minutes, while I sip a smoothie across the street.

Right. I don’t even like smoothies. Drinks aren’t supposed to be thick.

While I take this little mental trip through Crazytown, the Florida sun beats down on me. A drip of sweat runs down the center of my back. And across the way, I catch a man watching me from the driver’s seat of a dark sedan. A nervous zing shoots through my chest. But it disappears just as quickly as I realize the man behind the wheel is absolutely not Frederick Richards. He’s Hispanic, with salt-and-pepper hair.

I frown at him.

He smiles widely.

Creeper. I turn away, yanking open the door to the social worker’s office. A welcome blast of cool air hits me. But the functioning AC is the only pleasant thing about this place. Everything in the room is gray, including the cheap metal office furniture and the dingy walls, which have probably needed a fresh paint job for longer than I’ve been alive.

“Hi Rachel,” the wrinkled receptionist greets me. “You can have a seat, and Hannah will be out to get you as soon as she’s ready.”

I eye Hannah’s door. Is he really in there? I don’t ask, though, because my mouth is suddenly as dry as toast. Another wave of nausea hits as I steer myself into the battered chair just outside Hannah’s office.

Out of habit, I reach into my pocket for my iPod Classic. The steel edges felt cool against my damp fingers. Music has always been my drug of choice. In the palm of my hand, I hold the orderly world, arranged into playlists of my own design. Thousands of examples of prerecorded perfection can be cued up at the touch of my finger.

Some of it was written and performed by the man on the other side of Hannah’s door. I’ve been carrying my father around in my pocket for a long time.

“You’ve wasted entire months of your life thinking about him,” my mother often complained, her laser eyes on the stack of CDs in my room. “And he’s never spent five minutes thinking about us. I can guarantee it.”

I shove the iPod into my backpack and zip it shut.

Mom was right about everything. And it stings knowing that I’ll never have the chance to apologize. Everything stings, all the time. I’m Angry Rachel now. I hardly recognize myself. Even here, glancing around the shabby little office, I want to burn it all right to the ground.

When the door opens beside me, I actually jump like one of those skittish kitties in so many YouTube videos. Whirling around, I see only Hannah and her steady hazel eyes looking down at me. With a frown of concern, she steps forward, mostly closing the door behind her. “Rachel,” she whispers. “Do you want to meet Frederick Richards?”

Yes?

No.

Sometimes.

God.

My knees are spongy when I stand up. Hannah opens the door again, and it’s only three steps into her office.

And there he is, after all this time, sitting in an ugly chair with metal arms. I would know him anywhere, that face made famous on album covers and in the gossip pages of magazines. Thanks to video, I can picture him singing on stage in L.A. or Rome. I know what he looks like wandering the streets of New Orleans or catching a subway train in New York. That’s what Instagram and a couple thousand hours of YouTube can do for a girl.

And now I know what he looks like when he sees a ghost.

He sucks in his breath when I enter the room. For that one moment, I have the advantage. I’d been staring at him forever, but to him, my face is a surprise. Maybe he sees my mother. I’ve inherited her dark blond hair and brown eyes.

Or, maybe he has no memory at all of what my mother looked like.

Eventually he stands up. He’s tall. I’m taken aback by the way he fills Hannah’s little office. Who knew that music videos don’t capture proportion very well?

I’m still rooted in place near the door, my mouth dry. He doesn’t know what to do either. He steps forward, taking my clammy hand in his cooler one. “I’m so sorry about your mother. I’m sorry…” He clears his throat. “Well, I’m sorry about a lot of things. But I’m really sorry you lost your mom.”

I look down at his big hand holding mine, the long fingers. I couldn’t speak at all. People have been saying variations of this for a week, and I can usually stammer out a “thank you.” But not this time.

“Rachel,” Hannah says from behind her desk. “Why don’t you take a seat?”

Hannah’s voice is like cool water. I let go of Mr. Frederick Richards’s hand and slide obediently into a chair, while he retreats into his.

“This is an unusual situation,” Hannah says, folding her hands.

We’re still staring at each other. There are creases around his eyes and mouth. His fortieth birthday has just passed, a fact I know from Wikipedia. He’s aged over the decade that I’d been following him, but it’s still a very handsome face. My mother swooned for him all those years ago. That was her word—swooned. But my mother pronounced it the way her doctor had said “malignant.”

“Rachel, Mr. Richards wants to help you. But he has no legal right to care for you. His signature is not on your birth certificate, which complicates things. So he submitted a DNA test and hired a lawyer to help him navigate family court. But the system doesn’t move very fast. It’s unlikely that he can become your legal guardian before you turn eighteen next month.”

Some answer is required of me. “Okay,” I whisper. What does that mean, then? Will he just leave?

“Look, can Rachel and I talk?” he asks Hannah.

“You mean alone,” Hannah clarifies.

“Yes, I do.” He says it curtly, like a man who’s used to people listening.

“Today? No,” Hannah says. “This is a supervised visit between a child in the state’s custody and a stranger. I’m sure this is very difficult for you, Mr. Richards, and an audience doesn’t help. But this office plays host to hundreds of difficult conversations a year. I can promise that you will survive it.”

Hannah always gives it to you straight. She’s delivered plenty of bad news to me in a short amount of time, and all with a complete lack of bullshit.

Hannah didn’t sugarcoat the fact that I had to move into the group home. “It’s not the Plaza Hotel,” Hannah had admitted. “But it’s run by good people, and if there’s anything really bad about it, you’re going to call me right away.”

Mr. Frederick Richards sighs in his chair. His hands were nervous, fiddly. In most of his photographs he holds a guitar.

“Since you’ve come to Florida to offer Rachel your assistance,” Hannah says, “why don’t you tell us what sort you have in mind? I understand that until now your support has been financial in nature.”

He nods. “Yes, it was. I always…” He presses his fingers to his lips. “Before, I assumed that financial support was the only kind necessary.” He looks right at me. “I didn’t know your mother was sick. Nobody told me.”

Again, I know I should say something, but the words just aren’t there. My father is going to think his daughter is mute.

“So…” He returns his attention to Hannah. “You said Rachel is headed to boarding school in the fall.” His eyes dart toward me. “It sounds like she needs a place to go after she turns eighteen next month.”

“Technically, she will age out of our system in August,” Hannah agrees. “But she can probably keep her place at the group home until she leaves for school.”

I close my eyes, my stomach clenching at the idea of staying there even one minute more. When I open them again, he’s watching me. He turns a bit in the too-small chair so that he is facing me. “Rachel, I want to help you. My first choice was to just take you away from here.” He waves a hand, taking in either the Department of Children and Families or the entire state of Florida. I don’t know which. “But if I can’t do that, I’m going to make sure you’re being treated well.”

“Okay,” I whisper.

He turns to Hannah again. “There must be some way I can see her. She isn’t a prisoner of the state.”

“Well.” Hannah taps her desktop. “That will be up to Rachel. She goes to summer school, and she has a curfew in the evening. If she wishes to make time for you, she can tell you herself. I’m not at liberty to give out her contact information, but I can give her your phone number.”

“Please do,” he says, watching me.

There’s a pounding in my ears. “Pine Bluff High School,” I blurt out, surprising all of us. “I’m usually finished by two thirty.” I sneak a look at Hannah to see if she disapproves. But the social worker’s gaze is steady. “My curfew is seven thirty.”

“All right,” he says, taking a notebook and a pen out of his shirt pocket. I think I see his hands shaking as he scribbles on the cover.

Hannah glances up at the clock. “We still have a few minutes here. I could make a couple copies of the documents Mr. Richards provided. Should I do that now, Rachel? Or I could wait.”

I nod. “Go ahead.”

Hannah gets up and blocks the door open with a rubber stopper on her way out.

Frederick sits back in his chair, his head against the wall. “I know that I…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. “I don’t expect you to understand. But I want you to know how happy I am to see you.”

I only nod, because I don’t trust myself to speak. I’ve waited my entire life to hear those words. And yet I would trade them in, in a heartbeat, to erase the last month.

“If it’s okay with you, I’ll wait in front of your school tomorrow at two thirty.”

“Okay.” I lick my dry lips. “I’ll have homework.” It’s such an idiotic thing to add. Like homework matters right now.

“I’ll only stay as long as you’d like.”

In the silence that follows, Hannah breezes back in. “Do either of you have any questions?”

“I just want you to call me if there’s any way I can help,” he says. “You have my cell, and I’m just at the Ritz-Carlton.”

That’s when Ray, the van driver, knocks on the door jamb. “Hi Rachel! Are you ready?”

I stand up, ready to flee.

“Rachel?” Hannah’s gentle voice stops my exit. “I left you three messages today. Let’s make sure we confirm our next meeting together, okay?”

“My phone doesn’t work anymore. It must have, um…” I don’t want to admit it—that it must have been shut off. My mother was sick in the hospital for weeks before she died. Some bills weren’t paid. Of all the things going wrong in my life, an unpaid phone bill doesn’t even make the top fifty. But it embarrasses me, anyway.

“Oh,” Hannah says, her face full of compassion. “Then could I email you about our next meeting?”

I nod.

“Take this,” she says, passing me a business card. It reads Freddy Ricks. Hannah has just given me something I’d never been able to find before. His personal phone number and email address.

I look at him one more time, just to check that he’s real. He stares back at me. His eyes have reddened. “Bye,” he whispers. Then, the man whom Rolling Stone describes as “eloquence you can dance to” presses his lips together and turns his head away from me, toward Hannah’s wall.

#

* * *

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It’s a warm, sticky Florida night, the only kind we have in July. Orlando will be unbearably hot for three more months. By the time it cools off, I plan to be far, far away from here.

I sit on the scratchy bedspread, trying to review a pre-calc homework assignment. Nearby, on the other bed, my roommate Evie conceals herself beneath too-long bangs and monstrous headphones. The music blaring from them is so distracting that I can’t imagine how Evie isn’t profoundly deaf.

Evie has lived at the Parson’s Home for four years. Maybe she doesn’t care if she’s deaf.

This will be my seventh night here. Inside these walls, reality seems to slip and reshape. I watched my mother die. And even though I’d seen her casket lowered into the ground, I keep expecting her to walk through the door, saying “Rachel, gather your things, we’re leaving. And why haven’t you taken all your exams yet?”

I flip another page in my math book. Claiborne Prep—where I’m going next year—won’t accept a report card full of incompletes. I missed all my final exams the week my mother died. My school arranged for me to take them during the summer session. And now I’m stuck with this homework and this room and a spinning head. I try one more time to make sense of the equation on the page. But then I hear a car horn outside.

Dropping my pencil, I run from the room. The stairs are carpeted in a shade of brown which tries and fails to hide the dirt of many thousands of feet over several dozen years.

Outside, there’s a familiar blue beater at the curb. When I emerge, Haze climbs out from behind the driver’s seat. I sit down on the grimy stoop, and he sits down next to me. Haze wraps his tattooed arms around his knees and rests his chin on his biceps. “Evening,” he says.

“Hi.”

“You didn’t call me after. I’ve been waiting to hear how it was.”

“My phone stopped working.” And even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known what to say.

“Did you like him?” He gives me a sidelong glance.

I shrug. I’ve always liked him. “It was really hard. We were both terrified.”

“What’s he got to be scared of? Except me.”

Haze,” I warn. We’d been close since I was in the second grade, when I pinched Adam Lewis on the backside so that he’d leave Haze alone. Haze has been my loyal friend ever since, though he no longer needs my protection. The Adam Lewises of the world do not want to run afoul of the nineteen-year-old edition of Haze.

These days, I’m the one receiving all the protection. When my mother was hospitalized, Haze sat there next to me. While I held her hand, he held my other one. Together we’d watched my mother’s body slip deeper into illness, with new tubes each day, and a hissing ventilator at the end. During the three-week ordeal, he had ferried me to the hospital and back home. When I was too tired and too afraid to be alone, he had slept on my sofa and cut school.

Haze is stuck in summer school now too, which is basically my fault.

And then, after the end came, as I sat numbly in his car before the funeral, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me for the first time. Even now, it rests here on the grimy stoop between us, this unacknowledged thing that has shifted. Haze has always been quick to throw an arm around my shoulders or pat me on the back. But now I sense a kind of heat rising off him whenever I’m nearby.

At this very moment I’m aware of his fingertips sliding onto my bare knee. And I really don’t know what to think about that.

“I don’t see how Daddy thinks he can help,” Haze is saying. “The man is seventeen years too late.”

I know! Angry Rachel privately agrees. Of course I’m mad at Frederick. Still, Haze shouldn’t make me defend my decision to meet him.

As I watch, Haze’s fingers rub my kneecap gently. There’s love in his touch, which I sorely appreciate. But there’s also expectation. I reach for his hand, squeezing his fingers to occupy them. And then I change the subject. “Did you hear any news from Mickey Mouse?” Haze is applying for jobs at all the theme parks, hoping to start after we finally graduate.

“Not yet. I’ve been wondering—what do you think is the worst job there?”

“Is Mickey potty trained? What about Goofy?”

A slow grin overtakes his face. “Did you know the custodial guys have a code for all the bad shit? ‘Code V’ is for vomit. They clean it up with ‘pixie dust,’ which is really sawdust cut with charcoal.”

“Gross. Don’t get stationed by Space Mountain.”

“I know, right? Rachel, your curfew is in two minutes.”

“True.”

“We can hang out after school tomorrow.”

I shake my head. “Frederick is coming to see me again.” His name sounds funny on my tongue. Formal. But I can’t call him “my father” out loud when, as far as I know, he’s never called me his daughter.

Haze’s face falls. “Why, Rae? You don’t need his bullshit. What would your mother say?”

Haze and my mother had always gotten on beautifully together—even after Haze stopped being a cute grade-schooler, and got tattoos, and got left back a grade. “That’s just Haze,” she’d sigh, after the news of his latest mess. “He’s been through a lot.” To me, Jenny Kress was a militant taskmaster. But she had a blind spot for Haze. It was one of the enduring mysteries of my life.

“Jenny would say that man is nothing to you,” Haze presses.

I stare down at the cracks in the concrete walkway. The truth is that my mother said that very thing many times. Until the night that all changed.

“It was her idea,” I say slowly.

“What was?”

My stomach is already cramping. I’m still too raw to think about my mother’s final week. Getting through each day requires that I forget those frantic hours, as doctors scrambled to halt her decline, and nurses—my mother’s coworkers—came and went with anxious faces.

“It was that night you went out to buy milkshakes, because she said she would eat something.” Just the memory of her hospital room pushes me back under the surface of the deep pool of fear I’d been swimming through. “Out of nowhere, she said ‘We need to call your father.’”

At the time, I’d tried to brush the idea aside. “Now is not the time,” I’d told her.

But she’d said, “Now is well past the time.” And then she’d let out the saddest sigh I’d ever heard.

That had been the exact moment when I’d really understood how bad things were. Somehow I’d managed to stay positive until right then, even though I’d never seen her so sick. Even though she slept nearly all the time, and her skin felt like hot paper. Even though Hannah the social worker had begun to make regular appearances in my mother’s hospital room.

Until that moment, I was able to pretend. And then she burst that bubble. We have to call your father. It was the single scariest thing she ever said to me.

“We’re not calling him,” I’d argued again, feeling like I might throw up.

“Calling who?” Hannah had asked from the doorway.

And that was that.

“Well, shit,” Haze says, his voice full of surprise. He clasps one of my wrists and pulls me gently to my feet. “That doesn’t mean it was a good idea. What, uh, happened between them, anyway?”

“I have no idea. Except for the obvious thing.” My neck heats at the implication of sex.

But Haze just smiles. “That much I figured out. Do you think it was a hookup? Or were they a couple?”

All I can do is shake my head. “Whenever I asked questions, she always said she didn’t know him well. That he was a stranger.” Although I never quite bought it. Mom seemed angry at him in a way that a stranger might not deserve. Or was that wishful thinking?

I hated the idea that I was the product of a one-night stand. An accidental child.

That awful night my mother told Hannah to summon him had probably been a window—a rare chance to ask questions. But I hadn’t done it. I was afraid to break the seal, as if, by acknowledging my worst nightmare, it would come true.

And then it had. My mother’s last words were, “It’s okay, Rachel.”

Haze lifts a hand to rub my back in a way that puts me on high alert. “Rae, you don’t have to see that guy again if you’re not feeling it.”

“I know.”

“We were going to drop by your house tomorrow to pick up the things you need.”

That’s something else I’m afraid to do. “It will wait.”

“Okay,” he whispers, his eyes going soft. So I know what’s coming. He cups my face in his hands, and I stop breathing. Slowly, Haze dips his chin toward mine, bringing our lips together. I become overly aware of his palms on my cheeks, his breath on my face and the quiet snick of his kiss.

I pull away as soon as I can without being impolite.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he says. Then he turns and jogs toward his car.


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