Pretend She's Here(11)

“Oh, we’re not going to keep you locked up,” she said, letting out a small laugh. A genuine smile touched her lips. She squeezed my hand.

“Good,” I said. “Thank you! When can I leave?”

“Well, you’re not leaving.”

“But …” I said, confused. “You said you’re not going to keep me locked up.”

“Of course we’re not. This is your bedroom. We took the precaution of putting a solid lock on the door and bricking up the window. That’s for your own good. But once you’re calmer, when you’re ready, you can join us. The rest of the house is yours. Everything is yours. You can run outside, come to the store with me, we’ll get you into school, you can write poems for the literary magazine. You will love this part of Maine. It’s small-town America, so quaint, and I can’t wait for you to discover why we chose to move here. Lizzie would be over the moon. And so will you. You’ll love exploring it.”

“When?” I asked. This confirmed it: She was totally crazy to think I’d stick around. The second I got out of this house I’d run for help so fast.

“When I’m sure you understand the situation.”

“What situation?” I asked.

She was still holding my hand. She stroked the back of it with her thumb, stared into my eyes with something like compassion. “Your mother drinks,” she said. “Everyone knows.”

I felt shocked, as if she’d slapped me. “She doesn’t. She stopped.”

“She’ll start again,” Mrs. Porter said. “This will make her.”

“The fact you took me?”

“She will think you ran away. Kids do, all the time. Especially kids from alcoholic homes. Remember when you ran away last time? Your mother brought it on herself.”

“That was different,” I said, panicking at the memory. “She’s sober now. Nearly fourteen months now!”

“Some of us never drank to begin with. I’ll never understand,” she said, “how the good mothers lose their children and the bad mothers get to keep theirs.”

I was trembling with fury. I wanted to attack her for implying my mother wasn’t good. I felt like telling her things Lizzie had said about her, times Lizzie had gotten mad and spilled family secrets. She wasn’t the perfect mother. But I held the words inside.

“I’d be a better mother to you,” Mrs. Porter said.

“No one could be better than mine,” I said.

“Is that how you felt in seventh grade? Your parents didn’t know where you were for twenty-four hours.”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” I said, looking away. My parents had been so worried, they had called the police. My uncle Derry was on the force then, and he had done his best to keep it quiet once they found me. Lizzie had broken down and come clean, and they had found me in Mame’s attic—Mame had left her home to move into assisted living. Her house was for sale—empty but safe, the perfect place to hide out.

“I know how hurt and worried you were about your mother, even before you ran away,” Mrs. Porter was saying. “You’d come to our house, all those nights you stayed over. I knew you were suffering, that you were upset about her drinking—oh, when I think back, I would have done anything to help you.”

“You did help me,” I whispered. “You were … my other family. You were there for me.”

“So let us be your family now,” she said.

“We can go back to the way it was,” I said, thinking quickly. “I can be Lizzie’s friend—your friend. I know we fell out of touch, but I’ll fix that. I’ll visit, all the time. I can spend time here during vacations, and on weekends …”

“That’s not enough,” she said. “Because Lizzie was here every day.”

“But I’m not Lizzie.”

“You can be—you already are, to me. And, oh, I know I can be a good mother to you. Lizzie told me how despairing you were, how your mother hid bottles in her car, under her bed, in the toilet tank. She told me how much pain you were in, your mother slurring her words, embarrassing you in front of your friends.”

“She doesn’t do that anymore.”

Mrs. Porter’s eyes looked so sad. “Do you hear yourself? You were mortified. Alcoholism runs in families, you know. You’ve probably inherited the addiction gene. I can guide you.”

“I’ll never drink,” I said.

“That’s right. Because I’ll be a good example. You’ll see how you can have fun, get through life without alcohol.”

“But I can’t stay. You have to let me go.”

“Please don’t make this worse. You say you love them. Your ‘family,’” she said, putting the word in air quotes, as if they weren’t that at all.

“Of course I do,” I said. “More than anything.”

“Then you’ll realize that the only way to protect them is to accept this as your home. To be my other daughter. To be Lizzie.”

“How will that protect them?” I asked.

“Because if you don’t do this, if you try to run away, I will hurt your father and every one of your brothers and sisters. And I will kill your mother.”

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