Where the Stars Still Shine

For Caroline

Forgiveness is the remission of sins
.

For it is by this that what has been lost,
and was found, is saved from being lost again
.

—SAINT AUGUSTINE

 
 
Contents
 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

Also by Trish Doller

Chapter 1
 

Yellow light slashes the darkness as Mom sneaks into the apartment again. The muffled creak of the floorboards beneath the shabby carpet gives her away, along with the stale-beer-and-cigarette smell that always follows her home from the Old Dutch. Tonight she is not alone, and the shushing sound she makes as she closes the door is loud enough to wake me, if I wasn’t already awake. His features are lost in the darkness, but his shape is bulky and tall, and he adds the sharp scent of leather jacket to the room. Willing myself invisible, I press myself against the cushions of the couch, but when his hands reach for her waist, I realize I already am. Mom’s giggle is husky as she pirouettes out of his grasp and leads him into her bedroom.

I can’t sleep when she brings men home, so I pull on
my dirty jeans and cram my feet into untied sneakers. The floorboards creak under my feet, too, as I let myself out. A permanent, pungent cloud of curry and grease hangs in the hall courtesy of our right-side neighbors. I’ve never met them. I’ve only seen their shoes lined in a neat row outside their front door, and sometimes at night jangling Bollywood music seeps through the thin wall between us.

My breath comes out in filmy white puffs as I push my way out of the building into the November chill. I tuck my hands into the sleeves of my blue thermal, wishing I’d brought my hoodie. Seems like yesterday it was autumn, but tonight winter waits impatiently for its turn. Up on Union Avenue I duck into the empty Super Wash. It’s a favorite of mine. Warm, in that steamy, dryer-sheet-scented Laundromat way. Crinkled tabloid magazines. And vending machines that dispense the four basic food groups: salty, sweet, soda, and chocolate.

I burrow my hand into my hip pocket for money to buy a Coke. Among the coins is a blue-painted evil eye bead I’ve had as long as I can remember. The only thing I have from my life before we left Florida. Someone gave it to me, but no matter how hard I stretch my memory I can never touch on who. I only remember that the bead was one of many, strung on an elastic band. And that the first time she saw me wearing it—after we left,
I mean—Mom tore it off my wrist, scattering the beads and leaving a thin red weal on my skin. I only rescued the one bead. Twelve years I’ve been hiding it, transferring it from pocket to pocket, place to place. It doesn’t work—evil has a way of finding you even when you think you’re protected—but I keep the bead anyway. Just in case I’m wrong.

The soda machine is
always
out of the good varieties, leaving me to wonder where they all go. Who drinks them before I have a chance? Do people walking down Union get mad urges that can only be satisfied by the Super Wash vending machine? I hate grape, so I keep my money and inspect the dryers for orphaned laundry and spare change. Every now and then I’ll find a single sock or random pair of underwear, but once someone left behind a pale yellow hoodie. Another time, when I was there for official laundry purposes, I found a wallet. I pocketed the six dollars I found inside, cut up the credit cards so no one could use them, and threw the empty wallet down a storm drain.

This time my search turns up nothing. I settle on a green plastic chair with a two-year-old copy of the
National Enquirer
. An hour or two later, I’m trying to recall if my two-year-old horoscope ever came true—definitely no financial windfalls, that’s for sure—when a man without laundry comes into the Super Wash. It
makes me nervous. Who goes to a Laundromat without laundry? Apart from me, I mean.

He’s bulky and tall, and wears a leather jacket like the man my mom brought home. He’s older, maybe in his forties, with a nose that’s been broken. When he smiles at me I’m reminded of a jack-o’-lantern—a crooked-toothed and slightly sinister kind of handsome—and the urge to run pushes its way under my skin. I put down the magazine, tension curling in my belly.

“You’re Ronnie’s girl, right?” When he says Mom’s name like that, there’s no doubt he’s the man from the apartment. She hates it when people call her Ronnie. Her name is Veronica. “She said you’d probably”—except he says it
prolly
—“be here.”

“What do you want?” I hope my voice sounds more brave than it is.

His gaze slithers down from my face and gets caught on the front of my shirt. My heart rate ratchets up a notch, but not in a good way. I feel naked and I hate the way his eyes touch me. He gives a low whistle. “I thought your mom was a looker, but you—”

The man takes a step toward me, and an old dread sends me sprinting down the aisle of washers to the back door, propped open with a cinder block. I push out into the alley, not looking back. Not stopping.

He shouts something at me, but the only words that
register—following me like my own shadow—are the last two.

“… both crazy.”

Both. Crazy. Both. Crazy. Both. Crazy. The words echo in my head with every footfall as I make my way to the apartment. They land in time with every step up the staircase with the peeling paint until I reach our door. I can’t help but wonder: Is it true?

My brown tweed suitcase lies open on the couch and I hear the staccato taps of Mom’s heels as she crosses from the bathroom to her bedroom. I know what this means.

We’re leaving.

Again.

I lean against the door frame, watching as she dumps an armload of toiletries into her plain blue suitcase. We bought our bags at the Salvation Army the day we left Florida. My memories of that time are elusive like smoke, but one that’s always vivid is how desperately I wanted the pink Hello Kitty suitcase with a little handle and rolling wheels. She said it was too easily identified.
Memorable
, she said. I didn’t understand what she meant, only that there was a finality to her tone that meant I wasn’t getting that suitcase. She tried to make up for it by calling the brown case “vintage,” but sometimes that’s nothing more than a fancy word for “old and ugly.”

Beside her bag is a wad of cash in a money clip she didn’t have yesterday. My guess is she stole it from the man with the leather jacket.

“So Anthony found you, I see.” Mom’s eye makeup is smudged and she’s got a wild look I’ve seen before. “Where you been?”

“Nowhere.”

“I wish you wouldn’t run off to that Laundromat in the middle of the night, Callie.” Her tone is soft, but I can hear the anger simmering below the surface, so I avoid mentioning that she already knew where I was. “I worry something bad could happen to you.”

Bad things can happen anywhere, even when your mother is asleep in the next room. They already have. But I keep that to myself as well.

“Sorry.” And I am. If it wasn’t for me, my mom would probably have a different kind of life. A better kind.

“What are you just standing there for?” She gives me the uncertain smile she uses when … well, I don’t know exactly what she’s thinking, but I suspect she wonders what’s going on in my head. She flings a wrinkled T-shirt at me. “Go pack.”

“Now? Mom, it’s the middle of the night.”

The cracked-face thrift-store mantel clock in the living room—the one that wakes me up on the half hour
all night long—chimes three times, defending my point.

“Don’t start.” Her smiles fades. “We’re leaving in three minutes.”

I wonder what set her off this time. It could have been something the man in the leather jacket said. It’s as if she hears things at a different frequency, the way a dog picks up sounds the rest of us miss. Or maybe she hears something that isn’t really there at all. Either way, when she’s ready to go, there is no arguing. There is only leaving.

I don’t have many clothes; the ones I’m wearing and a couple of T-shirts, including the one I’m holding. The one that declares me a member of the Waynesville High School track team. I’ve never been to Waynesville. I’ve never been to high school. The only thing this T-shirt and I have in common is the running. I throw it in the trash. The next place always has a thrift store filled with T-shirts that will transform me into a soccer player or a Cowboys fan or someone who’s attended the Jenkins-Carter family reunion.

My books take up the most space in my suitcase. The binding is starting to come apart on the math textbook I bought for a quarter at a Friends of the Library sale. It was printed in 1959, but I love that it’s still relevant, that math is a constant in a world that is not. It
worries me that the book might not make it through another move. I pack the dog-eared copy of
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
, the atlas of world history I stole from a bookstore’s sidewalk sale, my garage-sale copy of
Walden
, and my favorite novel in the world—a kids’ book called
Mandy
, about a little orphan girl who wants more than anything to have a home and a family. I’ve read it so many times the pages are falling out, but I can’t leave it behind. I can’t leave any of my books behind. They’re the only friends I’ve ever really had.

“Two minutes,” Mom calls from the bedroom.

We’re leaving: a sink full of dirty dishes, the old television we found on the curb in front of someone’s house, a vinyl couch that stuck to my face when my head slipped off my pillow, and that stupid noisy clock she bought because it reminded her of the one in her grandparents’ house when she was a little girl. We’re even skipping out a month behind on our month-to-month rent.

We usually live in buildings like this one. Our side of town is usually the rough side, where they don’t ask for references or deposits. Where, when you move away in the middle of the night, they shake their heads and cut their losses. Once we squatted in the model home of a development that was never completed. We’ve lived in a couple of long-term efficiency motels. And another
time we “borrowed” a house that belonged to Leo and Dotty Ruskin, an elderly couple who spent their winters in the dry heat of Arizona. I’ve always wondered if they felt like the Three Bears when they returned. Did they feel violated for a while, locking doors they don’t normally lock until they felt safe again? Sometimes I still feel a little guilty about that, but it was nice to sleep in a real guest room. I made the beds and washed all our dishes before we left. I hope that makes up for Mom cleaning out the tin of spare change they kept in their closet.

My curls are tangled and oily as I scrape them into a ponytail. I wish I had time to take a shower. Wish we didn’t have to leave. I have no sentimental attachment to this town. No job. No school spirit. No boyfriend unless you count Danny, which I don’t because he already has a girlfriend. But I still wish we could stay here—or anywhere. Put down roots. Live. “I don’t want to do this.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Mom calls from her bedroom.

I blink, startled that she can read my mind. Then I realize I’ve said it aloud. Now she’s going to be mad at me again.

“You’re
my
daughter,” she snaps, heading out the front door. “Where I go, you go. And I’m going in one minute.”

I tuck spare underwear—which I refuse to buy in thrift stores—into the empty spaces of my suitcase. My blue toothbrush. My journal, so thick with notes, stories, poems, and postcards I’ve collected over the years that I keep a wide pink rubber band around it to hold in the pages. Most of my life is recorded in this book, starting from when I first learned to write in crooked letters. Most. Because there are some secrets you don’t even want to tell yourself.

My minute is up when I hear a beep from the old battleship-gray Toyota Corona that my mother bought from a junkyard with her bartender tips. I zip up my suitcase, blow out a tired breath, and touch my jeans pocket, feeling for the bump of the evil eye bead. The Toyota beeps again, telegraphing Mom’s impatience.

The last thing I do is put away my guitar, an old rosewood and spruce Martin with a mahogany neck. Mom bought it in a pawnshop in Omaha. A Christmas present when I was eleven. It wasn’t as if I’d never seen a guitar before, but as she flirted with the guy behind the counter, trying to get him to raise his offer on a ring she was selling, I fell in love with the Martin. She didn’t get the extra cash she was after, but he threw in the guitar. Mom said maybe I’d be the next Courtney Love. I didn’t tell her that on one of the pages in my journal I’d written “I hate Courtney Love” over and
over until the page was covered. My feelings aren’t so strong about her now as they were back then, but that was before her Hole cassette finally came unraveled. Anyway, my Martin is a war zone of scratches and finish cracks, but the sound is still as rich and resonant as if it were new.

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