Toni’s earliest memory is the first of many at that kitchen table.
She can’t be older than four, but there she is, seated in her chair and finally tall enough to hang out there without a booster seat. As if watching a movie, she listens with rapt attention as her mom describes what she’s doing.
“Now, we have to start boiling water,” she explains, beginning to fill a pot. “That way, we can be doing other things while it’s heating up.”
“Multi-task,” Toni chimes in helpfully, recalling that term from their bedtime story the night before.
“Exactly,” she says, and the smile that spreads wide across her mother’s face sends her heart soaring. In two quick strides, she crosses the kitchen, and cups Toni’s face in her hands. “You are so smart. They told me not to rush your reading, but you just soak it up like a sponge.”
Toni doesn’t know what to say about this, so she just offers, “I like bedtime stories.”
“Me too,” her mom agrees.
That evening, like most evenings ever since her mother realized Toni was actually absorbing all the stories, they curl up in Toni’s bed and read another chapter together. She’s also assigned a new vocabulary word, ‘forever.’
“A long time?” Toni asks.
“Indefinite,” her mother answers. Toni just shakes her head. Her mother thinks on this, settling back against the pillows, and then eventually says, “If something is ‘forever,’ it means it will never end.” She presses a kiss to the top of Toni’s hair, still half-damp from her bath. “For example, my love for you is ‘forever.’”
Toni considers this, though she has to admit that, being four, she barely has started grasping the concept of ‘next week,’ much less whatever ‘forever’ means. Eventually, though, she says, “I love you forever too.”
She has no idea how much, one day, she’ll wish that wasn’t true. For now, she just snuggles down into the covers. Her arms close around the basketball-shaped pillow she’s had since she was a baby, and with the distant hum of her mom listening to her music in the living room, she drifts off to sleep.
Over the years, it becomes somewhat of a routine every day.
First, Toni camps out at the kitchen table while her mom cooks dinner, and as she grows older she’s allowed to help with more and more of it. She learns how to categorize proteins by red, lean, and fish, she gets extremely good at making what her mom tells her is a “roux, as in kanga,” and they find out that she doesn’t have the gene that makes people’s eyes water when they chop onions, so she’s permanently put on onion slicing duty.
She’s still not allowed to touch the stove without permission, and she’s sort of afraid of cooking bacon because it shoots off hot grease, but she knows how to add cups and teaspoons, and she can identify ten different spices on smell alone.
Then, every evening, the two of them cuddle up close in Toni’s bed, and they read together.
This easily becomes Toni’s favorite part of the day, and as they work their way through the Harry Potter series, Toni grows up and so does her literacy. Her mom starts challenging her to read every other sentence, then every other chapter, and to point out words she knows, and to ask about those she doesn’t.
Sometimes they make it through five chapters before her mom taps out, and sometimes Toni starts drifting off after a few pages. Either way, the night always ends with a kiss on the forehead, a sleepy exchange of “I love you forever,” and her head on her basketball pillow as she falls asleep to her mom’s music.
The first time it happens, it couldn’t be more ordinary of a situation. They’re on the bus to grocery shopping, like they do every week, but suddenly Toni just feels hot inside her jacket. The urge to rip it off comes out of nowhere, but it blossoms through her chest like a flame.
Except she’s wearing a backpack, one that clips across her shoulders because her skinny little frame is always slipping out of straps, so she can’t get it off, and she feels hot and angry and confused, and her movements are tight and aggressive as she claws at the clip across her shoulder trying desperately, any way she can, to just get it off of her.
Her mom notices right away, though, and in an instant, she releases the buckle across her chest, and helps her unzip the jacket.
“Close your eyes,” she murmurs into Toni’s ear, “close your eyes, and take a deep breath. As deep as you can. Hold it. Let it out slowly. Focus on something else.”
Toni tries, she really does, but deep breathing only shows her how she can’t take a deep breath. It’s like her lungs are a balloon stuck in a container just a bit too small. No matter how thoroughly she breathes, she never reaches that feeling of fullness. “I can’t,” she whispers, trying not to panic.
“Then talk to me,” her mom says, pushing her sweaty fly-aways back. “Talk to me, baby. About anything. Tell me about a recipe.”
Only one comes to mind, a muffin recipe for some reason, but Toni starts listing it off anyway, “Six tablespoons of butter. A cup — no, three-quarters of a cup of sugar. Two eggs.”
By the time she gets to the end, which is two-and-a-half cups of fresh blueberries, the feeling has started to pass. She breathes a little easier, and she feels a little less hot. Almost embarrassingly, she suddenly realizes that it’s not even that warm inside the bus, and mostly she’s just left with a lingering feeling of exhaustion.
They think it’s something like claustrophobia, even though Toni can still remember how she used to hide under bed for fun, but that’s the easiest explanation, so they just make sure to stop clipping her backpack over her, and to leave her jackets unzipped a couple inches.
Except a month or so later, it happens again.
Toni stubs her toe in the doorway, and without thinking, a shout rips out of her as forcefully as her fist connects with the wall.
The next time, she’s cooking pancakes with her mom, and she just can’t seem to get the heat right because all of them are coming out slightly burned, yet still somehow raw in the center, and it’s so stupid to be frustrated about, but somehow that makes it worse, and like it’s an out of body experience as she’s hurling the spatula across the kitchen.
But with every instance, her mom is there, always. She guides Toni to sit down without touching her too much, because that seems to make it worse, and just carefully tells her to close her eyes, and breathe.
For some reason, the same recipe comes to mind almost automatically, and running through it always calms her down. Toni learns to catch herself before the feeling grows too far for her to catch, and to close her eyes and deep breathe and walk herself through the recipe until it has passed. And somehow, it works.
Toni’s mom mentions once, off-handedly, that if they had more money, Toni could go see a therapist. “It’s like, someone you can talk to,” she explains, shrugging. “They would be able to help you with all that better than I can.”
It seems like a ridiculous thought, because Toni’s mom helps her perfectly in her eyes, but the reminder of money won’t go away.
Toni knows enough to understand they’re not rich. She’ll never go to Disneyland for spring break like her friends, nor does she have a backyard with a swimming pool and a trampoline, and if she had a sibling, they’d have to share a room.
Instead, a day out includes walking around the park and getting McDonald’s. They go down to the community pool on Thursdays when they offer free swimming for those under twelve, if Toni’s mom can spare the coins for the bus, and instead of summer camp, those months are spent camped out at the park for Toni to play and her mom to paint.
The library is frequented for movie rentals more than Blockbuster, Toni’s only been to the actual theater once, and it’s possible her mom only has two jackets.
Despite that, though, she doesn’t really care.
She may not have the most advanced technology, but the cassette stereo works perfectly, and music fills the empty spaces in their apartment without fail. They may not have a TV, but they read books together every evening, and for Toni’s birthday, they spend the day eating pizza they ordered in, and painting her room a new color.
Toni has her mom, and her mom has her, and they have their cozy, two-bedroom apartment. It’s perfect, and it’s hers, and it’s home.
It’s home, until it’s not.
It unravels slowly, so much so that by the time she’s caught on it’s already too late.
Her mom teaches her about how you can cook with spam as a quick protein, and it doubles as seasoning so they won’t need to waste money on salt anymore. Mini-ketchups and half-and-halfs and oyster crackers are free at the gas station if you buy a hot dog for a dollar, and if you’re smart with how you use it, you can make soup.
They have competitions to see who can squeeze the most ketchup out of each little packet, and she laughs when her mom cuts the spam into letters that spell out her name. They still sit together every evening, and though the recipes are less elaborate, her mom winks at her like it’s a secret just for the two of them when she explains that toasting noodles before cooking them is a free way to add flavor.
One night, Toni is still halfway through her addition homework when her mom slings her jacket and purse over her shoulder and says, “Go ahead and get started on your bath. And I’ll be back to read before bed, okay?”
“Okay,” Toni says. It’s a non-answer, though, because it’s a non-question. She just watches, an icky feeling crawling up her throat, as her mom tries to reassure her with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.
“An hour at most,” she promises.
Toni nods. “Okay.”
She finishes her homework as quickly as she can, because with her eight-year-old logic, the faster she does, the faster her mom will be home. Even her bath is short-lived, because ever since their hot water got turned off, it’s just not that much fun anymore.
The time ticks on, taunting her as she gets dressed for bed, picks out a book for them to read together, and crawls under the covers. She doesn’t know how long she lies there, but before she knows it, her head is completely dry, and her eyes feel heavy every time she blinks.
Toni tries to stay awake, she really does. Every time she feels herself falling, she forces herself to hold her eyes open, and every time a wave of sleep catches her by the toes, she shakes herself free. Eventually, though, she can’t stop it, and with her basketball pillow hugged to her chest, she lets herself close her eyes. And instead of falling asleep to the sound of her mom’s radio, she drifts off to her mind cycling through six tablespoons of butter, two-and-a-half cups of blueberries, and back again.
One day, her mom sits her down at the table and says, “I’m going to be gone this weekend. But I’ll be back in time to take you to school on Monday, okay?”
Toni’s really tired of being asked if things are okay when it’s not her decision, but she just nods and smiles. “Okay.”
“I’ll make a big pot of pasta or something,” her mom says, nodding along as she’s saying it, “and that way you won’t have to use the stove. Don’t open the door for anyone, and don’t leave the apartment.”
“Where are you going?” Toni asks.
“I got you a new book, which you can read while I’m gone and tell me all about,” is all she says. The way she pushes it across the table feels like an apology, and when Toni takes it, it feels like forgiveness she didn’t consent to giving.
“Thanks,” she says, looking down at the floor. Six tablespoons of butter. Three-fourths of a cup of sugar. Two eggs. A half-cup of milk. One teaspoon of vanilla —
“Hey,” her mom says. She coaxes Toni’s eyes up to meet hers. “I love you forever.”
“I love you forever too,” she answers back.
“Make sure not to tell anyone I’ll be gone this weekend,” her mom adds. “I don’t want you to get in trouble, okay?”
“Why would I get in trouble?” Toni asks, but her mom is already standing up and disappearing back into her bedroom.
Once it becomes clear Toni is capable of surviving by herself, the weekend trips become nearly every weekend. Sometimes, her mom doesn’t make it back by Monday, and stumbles through the door much later that night. Sometimes, she doesn’t even come back until Tuesday.
Toni learns to do the dishes by hand, but it’s hard when there’s no hot water, and she tries to wash her clothes in the sink, but they’ve run out of detergent. She tries to use bar soap from her baths, but it doesn’t seem very effective.
She learns to walk to school on her own, and to cross the street before she gets to the bus stop that always has creepy people hanging out. She gets good at making excuses for her mom’s absences, and is diligent to turn her homework in on time to avoid suspicions.
A week after her tenth birthday, her mom goes on another trip. It’s supposed to be just for a couple days, but over a week later, she still isn’t back yet.
It gets to the point where Toni has to cook something, and the microwave just isn’t enough anymore. All they have is a packet of ramen, which means she has to use the stove. She’s staring at the pot, the spoon, and the stove, wondering what to do, but with another grumble in the pit of her stomach, she nods decisively.
“Okay, Toni,” she says to herself. She reaches for the pot, and crosses over to the sink, narrating herself just like she’s heard her mom do. “Fill up the pot, but we have to make sure we leave room at the top so it doesn’t boil over. Turn the stove dial to the number seven.”
She leans back on the step-stool, waiting for it to explode or something, but nothing happens. The water starts heating up, and she smiles, because why has the stove been such a big deal this whole time?
The noodles are almost done cooking when she loses her balance, because her mom never did fix the wiggly leg on the step-stool, and as she reaches out for something to grab onto, in the back of her mind is her mom saying, “Remember, we always turn the handles of the pots and pans away from the edge of the stove. See how you could accidentally grab or knock it off?”
In her moment of panic, though, it’s too late, and as she comes crashing down to the floor, so does the pot of boiling water.
Six tablespoons of butter. Six tablespoons of butter. Six tablespoons of —
She can’t even really get past that. There is nothing going through her mind except how much it hurts.
The next twenty minutes is kind of a blur, if she’s being honest. Vaguely, she remembers that you’re supposed to put cold water on burns, but it’s her whole body, so she jumps into the shower, but then that just hurts even more, and she’s examining the way her skin is just so red, and she knows it isn’t right.
Toni hears her teacher chanting at her to call nine one one in an emergency, but then there’s the fact that their landline was disconnected a year ago anyway, and then there’s her mother’s instructions not to call anyone or go anywhere. Eventually, though, she decides that this is an exception to the rule.
Her neighbor takes one look at her now soaking wet body, the welts forming on her forearm, and the redness that no doubt travels up past her clothes, and pulls her inside.
She doesn’t really know what’s going on after that, but she figures out how to clock the hierarchy of people to listen to as she gets handed off to people. Her neighbor tells her to listen to the police officer, and the police officer tells her to listen to the nurse, and the nurse tells her the doctor will be in to see her, and then there’s a different police officer, and all the while she’s just silent.
Six tablespoons of butter. Three-fourths of a cup of sugar. Two eggs. A half-cup of milk. One teaspoon of vanilla. One cup of all-purpose flour, one cup of whole heat. One tablespoon baking powder. One-fourth of a teaspoon of salt. Two-and-a-half cups of blueberries. Six table —
“You live with your mom?” the police officer asks. Toni doesn’t say anything. She tries to tuck herself up into the hospital bed, but then that hurts, so she lays flat, trying to focus on anything except the way even the light hospital gown feels like bricks on her raw skin. “Sweetie, do you know where your mom is?”
It’s not that Toni doesn’t want to be helpful, but she knows she’ll get in trouble if she says anything about where her mother has been. She also realizes that she doesn’t really know. And, that the chaos has died down, she also realizes she never actually got to eat the ramen she was making.
Hesitantly, she says, “I’m hungry.”
After that, especially once they give her a meal, she just sort of tells them… everything. They tell her she’s doing great, and that she’s doing a good job answering their questions, and they assure her about six times that she’s not in any trouble.
“You’ll go to someone else’s house tonight,” the police officer is telling her. “Like a sleepover.”
“Who?” Toni asks. “Why can’t I go home?”
“Well, there’s no one at your apartment right now,” the officer says.
Toni shrugs. “I’ve stayed there alone lots of times.”
“I know,” the officer says. She opens her mouth to say something else, but with a little shake of her head, she just repeats, “I know.”
After that, she sort of decides to stop asking questions because nobody will answer anything for her anything anyway. She just goes where she’s told, sleeps where she’s given a bed, and tells them anything they want to know.
She has to admit that it’s sort of nice to have a hot shower and a full meal every night, and though the kiss on the forehead from the lady — her foster mom, she’s told, isn’t as nice as the one from her own, it’s still okay.
They take her to see her mom at the police station a week later. Her eyes light up as soon as she sees her, and she launches forward, enveloping her in a hug that ordinarily would have made everything right again, but now just hurts. Like, physically.
“Ow,” she says.
Her mom lets go immediately, pulling back and gingerly holding her by the shoulders. “They said you burned yourself? Are you okay?” Toni nods. She sighs. “I thought I told you not to use the stove.”
“I was hungry,” Toni says. She feels her lower lip start to tremble a little bit, and hates how out of control it makes her feel. Six tablespoons of butter. Three-fourths of a cup of sugar. Two eggs. “Can we go home now?”
“Ah, no,” her mom says, stepping back. She glances up at the police officer watching over them. “You have to go back to the home you’re staying at right now. Until I can get better.”
“What?” Toni shakes her head.
“Come sit,” her mom says, leading her over to the chairs lined up against the wall. “You know how I’ve been gone some nights?” An understatement, but Toni nods. “I’m sick. And I’ve been going out to get my medicine, and that’s why… well, once I don’t need that medicine anymore, and I’m better, we can go home, okay?”
And though the tight clawing feeling in her chest makes her wants to scream and yell, Toni doesn’t even know how to start putting into words what she’s feeling. She just says, “Okay.”
Her mom shrugs off her jacket, laying it over Toni’s shoulders. It’s much too big, but it’s warm and soft, and it smells like way their apartment used to be. “Here. You can hold onto it until we’re together again.” Toni wiggles her arms into the holes, but they don’t even reach much past the elbows. Her mom helps her roll the sleeves up. “There, perfect.”
“Time to go,” the officer says.
Toni’s mom gives her the same smile that’s begging and pleading and apologizing and reassuring her all at the same time. “I love you forever, Toni.”
“I want to go home,” Toni says.
“Not yet,” her mom sighs.
As the officer leads her out, Toni looks over her shoulder just once, as if turning back will turn back time itself. It doesn’t. She sees her mom offer one last smile, though it’s tainted by the tears rolling down her cheeks and the shuddery breath she takes in.
Six tablespoons of butter.
Toni feels the wiggle in her lower lip as persistent as ever, but she sets her jaw stubbornly, turns back towards the door, and she refuses to cry.
Toni’s not sure what she expected from the foster system, but it certainly wasn’t her new normal of settling in somewhere and getting transferred as soon as she’s comfortable.
She doesn’t even care whether the home is even good or not; she just wants to stay somewhere. Inevitably, though, she gets moved, and is never in one place for more than six months at a time.
And the houses? They all feel like just that; a house. It’s a house, but it’s not hers. They’re nothing more than stepping stones and stopping points.
She gets through them six tablespoons of butter at a time, though, and after a little while, she starts to feel like her time at her mom’s was nothing more than a stepping stone, too.
After four months at her current home, her social worker has decided to care that she always has bruises on her, and she gets taken out. The social worker makes a note in her file that she’s having trouble with anger and authority, as if the idea that a kid like her might end up that way is totally absurd.
Much to her chagrin, Toni is now thirteen, and within the age range for the group home in that jurisdiction. She’s assigned there for a little whole so she can “bond with others,” whatever that's supposed to mean. She comes to find out it entails two months of fighting other girls for shower time, and basically living in her mom’s jacket to avoid it being stolen.
Eventually, they must decide she’d do better in a more typical domesticated home setting, because she’s moved one more time.
And, for the first time since she was with her mom, they tell her she’ll be an only child at this new family.
Maybe it’s because of that, or maybe it’s because Toni’s cynicism towards life has really worn her down, and she just can’t do it anymore, but she has a different feeling about this house. Maybe it’s the flowers blooming out front, or the bright yellow front door, or maybe it’s the genuine smile on the foster mom’s face, but she starts to think maybe this house could be home.
It’s a couple, unsurprisingly, and Toni falls in love with them immediately.
“So, this is your room,” the woman who introduced herself as Christina says. She walks around, looking almost nervous as she gestures to various things. “A closet, a dresser, a desk, and a bed.” She fusses with her hands, and then says, “It’s a little small, I know, but we can decorate it how you like.”
“It’s perfect,” Toni blurts out. She blushes, but then nods a little encouragingly, though she’s not sure if she’s trying to hype up herself or Christina. “Really, I haven’t had a room in a long time. Anything is perfect.”
Christina doesn’t look like she knows what to say about that, but the sound of a garage door closing saves her. “Mitchell is home.” She leads Toni towards the kitchen, and turns over her shoulder to explain, “He’s a lawyer. He works odd hours, but he’s home all weekend, and that’s when we like to do family activities.”
“Cool,” Toni says.
A small smile is coaxed her way, and Christina says, “That includes you now, by the way.”
In the doorway of the attached garage entrance stands maybe the kindest-looking man Toni has ever seen. Despite his polished clothing, everything about him screams approachable, and there’s a distinct twinkle in his eye when he says casually, “Hey, I’m Mitch. Sorry I’m late.”
“Hi,” Toni says. “I’m Toni.”
“And I’m hungry,” he announces. “What’s for dinner?”
Christina rolls her eyes, and with a bemused expression, turns to Toni. “He’s joking because he does all the cooking.”
“I like to cook,” Toni offers.
“Would you like to help?” Mitch asks, shedding his suit jacket, and rolling up his sleeves.
Toni internally curses because of course that would be the natural course of conversation, and she can’t decide if she does. “Maybe,” she says. “But, uh, I don’t like to boil things.”
Along with taking lukewarm showers, avoiding boiling things on the stove has been one thing Toni just can’t shake. It’s weird, she knows, but Mitch doesn’t seem to care, and just throws her a smile.
“No worries,” he says. “Why don’t you just watch for tonight, but if you ever want to help, don’t refrain from hollering.”
“Refrain,” Toni repeats, tongue curling unnaturally over the word. “Like, hesitate?”
“Yeah,” Mitch says. He pauses in front of the fridge. “Yeah, exactly that.”
“My mom used to give me vocabulary to learn every night,” Toni says, already rolling her eyes at herself for not being able to stop herself from bringing her into a conversation that couldn’t have been less about her.
“We heard you’re very good with words,” Christina pipes up, and though it’s a compliment, there’s a teasing lilt to her tone.
Within a few seconds, Toni realizes she’s probably referring to all the fights Toni was in at the group home, no doubt documented in her file. “Oh.” She resists the urge to say, ‘Sometimes the muffin recipe doesn’t work.’
“Honestly, we were impressed,” Mitch says. He wiggles his eyebrows at her over the vegetables he’s chopping. “We’ve never met someone your age able to argue their way through all those situations with such elegance.”
Toni shrugs. “It’s a a gift and a curse.”
“Well, Mitch is a lawyer, like we said, so I wouldn’t try anything on him,” Christina says. In most homes, a sentence like that would be a warning, but the way she grins like they’re sharing a secret reminds Toni so much of her mom that it almost hurts.
“Speaking of which,” Mitch says, “your file mentioned you struggle with anger management. Have you ever considered playing a sport?”
Toni doesn’t miss the way the casualness in which he says it is so starkly different from the typical hushed voices or straight up disappointment.
She shrugs. “Um, not really.”
“You might want to think about it,” Christina says. “I’ve always struggled with anxiety, and going for runs helps me. Has there ever been a sport you’ve been interested in?”
The answer is a distinct “no,” as Toni doesn’t think she could be less athletically inclined if she tried, but she thinks about the basketball pillow she used to not be able to fall asleep with, and that she now hasn’t seen in years.
“Basketball,” she says.
And so begins the best year of her life.
She starts basketball practice at the YMCA, and finds out that she’s actually really good at it. She still can’t figure out what to do with her hands when she runs, but her coordination is spot on, and she has a knack for making baskets in the most impossible of situations.
Christina ends up being right, too, and it’s easier to control her emotions after she starts playing. Vaguely, she remembers her saying something about endorphins and physical manifestations of stress, but she doesn’t really care what the science is, she just cares that that switch in her doesn’t flip as often, and that she can now go shoot baskets instead of punching a wall.
They paint her room blue, because that’s what Toni always thought her favorite color was, but every time she walks up to the bright front door that’s more and more familiar every time, she wonders if it’s secretly becoming yellow.
They cook dinner every night together, even if it’s just shoving a pizza in the oven, and every Friday evening they play board games. Sunday is for family, apparently, and it’s spent watching movies, going on walks, and or taking day trips to the city.
They help her with her homework, but don’t hover more than necessary, and they buy her new basketball shoes when she starts really getting into it, practicing five days a week, and Toni goes through a growth spurt six months in until she finally fits into her mom’s jacket without rolling up the sleeves.
She gets the best grades she’s ever had in her life because now she actually feels like she has a reason to try, especially when Christina mentions off-handedly that you can play basketball in college, and sometimes that can be a scholarship, too.
And at first Toni is angry that this isn’t a life she could have had with her mom, but somewhere along the lines of going to therapy for the first time, she realizes that her mom just wasn’t meant to be a mother. It’s as simple as that, and it’s neither of their faults.
She did the best she could. She loved Toni with her whole heart. It wasn’t enough. Toni, slowly but surely, comes to terms with the fact that all three of those things can be true at the same time.
Right as she’s thinking, This could be home, Mitch and Christina are sitting her down in the kitchen and explaining that Mitch got a job offer in Florida they just couldn’t pass up, and at the end of the month she’ll be going to a new foster family.
And it hurts. God, it hurts almost more than it did when she left her mom the first time. This is boiling water all over her skin, except this time there aren’t any doctors who can fix her. And Mitch and Christina are watching her, eyeing her reaction carefully, as if they can see the way her lower lip is trembling.
The part of her that whispered, Home? answers back with a soft, Not yet.
It might take thirty-six tablespoons of butter, but she manages to say, “Okay,” and she doesn’t cry.
The first time she sees Regan, it goes by so quickly she could have sworn she’d imagined her. Might as well have, anyway, because after two seconds of eye contact, the moment passes and she’s being swept up by her team to give a speech.
The second time, Regan is walking into her biology class.
Toni doesn’t know if she wants to kiss Martha or give her a smack, but before she knows it, Marty is out the door with a wiggle of her eyebrows, and Regan is sliding into the seat across from her. Regan says something that is utterly too John Green for Toni’s liking, but she makes up for it with her smile and the twinkle in her eyes, and somehow Toni finds herself in the passenger seat of her car as they roll up to her current place of residence.
“So… you live here with your mom?” Regan asks, looking around.
“Foster fam,” Toni says. She can already feel her chest tightening, but with a six tablespoons of butter pause she shrugs her way through it. “Mom is on that rehab, rinse, repeat program.”
It’s not not true. But at the same time, Toni hates the way the tiniest part of her still hopes that there’ll be a day when her mom gets her shit together and comes back for her, and she hates the way she can’t keep some of the longing out of her voice.
And maybe it’s the fact that she’s already thinking about stuff that makes her upset, but when her foster brother throws a damn yogurt on the car, she says ‘fuck it’ to the muffin recipe, and goes at him. It’s only after she’s sheepishly returning to the car does she wonder if her yelling at a 12-year-old is a turn off, but Regan leans in and kisses her hard, right then and there.
Things move kind of quickly after that. Toni would love to believe that it’s because she and Regan just have a magical connection, but deep down she knows that part of her is trying to prove that she doesn’t need her mom, that she can make her own home.
It’s easy to forget how lonely she is when they’re shooting baskets together, and she’s teasing Regan about how she’s taller and Toni still blocks all her shots. It’s easy to forget when they’re doing homework in the library after school, and when swapping each other’s bio labs to check the other’s work feels natural and simple.
It’s easy to forget when they’re going on drives and listening to old cassette tapes, or trying to make a romantic meal together, but they end up burning it all and they have to order take-out.
They even bake those stupid muffins together one day, and Toni just shrugs when Regan asks her why she knows the ingredient list by heart.
Inevitably, though, the day must come to an end, and Toni returns to the little bed she’s made for herself in the bed of an old truck outside. It’s nice having a space to herself for the first time since Mitch and Christina some three years ago, but at the same time it almost depresses her more to look around and realize her foster family really couldn’t give less of a shit about her.
No amount of warm kisses and squeezes of the hand during the day fights off the cold of night. No amount of whispers of affection and teasing remarks tossed at each other fights off the utter silence of being alone.
And no amount of attempts to find a new coping mechanism — literally anything else — changes the fact that nothing helps her get to sleep faster than closing her eyes and imagining her mom’s radio as she cycles through six tablespoons of butter.
“Does your foster family pay attention to where you sleep?” Regan asks.
Toni looks up, pencil poised over the very studious doodles in the margins of her trigonometry homework. “Uh, sort of?” She shrugs. “I mean, they want to make sure I’m, like, still alive, but…” she trails off.
“What about your social worker?” Regan has a weirdly hopeful expression on her face.
“Not really?” Toni looks around the school library to make sure nobody’s listening, then drops her voice and says, “Honestly, when you’re, like, sixteen, and you live on a reservation, they’re just waiting to drop you from the system.”
“So nobody cares about where you are?” Regan presses.
Toni furrows her eyebrows, and forces a chuckle. “I mean, if you’re trying to make me feel like shit…”
“No!” Regan says, eyes widening. “Shoot, there were probably better ways to start this conversation.” She takes a deep breath. “Toni, I’m inviting you to live with me.”
“What?” Toni almost pinches herself. She blinks, waiting for Regan to say something else, but when she doesn’t, she asks, “Isn’t it a bit soon for that?”
“Look, I talked to my mom and dad, and we agreed that we want you to come stay with us,” Regan says, blushing a little. “We’ve got a spare room since my older brother went to college. And honestly, it’s not safe for you to sleep outside every night.”
If she’s being real, Toni never really thought about that before, except now she’s wondering how on Earth she hasn’t been murdered yet. “Oh.”
“You don’t have to,” Regan adds quickly. “But, uh, it would be nice.”
Which is how she ends up moving into her girlfriend’s house in the middle of high school. The scary part is that it is really nice.
By now, Toni should probably be jaded about the whole “home” thing. She’s so close to eighteen, and some part of her thinks maybe the idea of it is overrated anyway. And, to the outside world, she likes to present herself like she doesn't care because if there’s one thing she can’t stand more than her constant desire for family, it’s pity from others.
It’s a well-constructed facade, but slipped right below it is the glimmer of hope that somehow she’ll find what she’s looking for.
She’s hoping that she’ll see a sign early on telling her that this isn’t it, but it doesn’t come. Every passing day just strengthens the itching feeling that maybe, just maybe, this could be home for her.
Every time Regan’s mom packs her a lunch for school, every time Regan’s dad comes to see her at work when he knows she takes her break, every time Regan’s younger brother bounces onto the couch next to her to tell her about his day… the feeling grows.
And it’s not like Toni is naive or anything. She knows the odds of meeting your life partner in high school is incredibly low, and knows the odds that hers is Regan is even lower. She hopes, though, that after they go off to college they’ll stay friends, and she wonders if this could be where she comes back for the holidays.
And then it happens.
“Wait a minute,” Regan says, “whose shampoo are you using?” Toni chuckles, turning back just a bit, and with a re-grip around her waist, Regan says from behind, “This doesn’t smell like mine or mom’s. Are you using dad’s Head and Shoulders?” Her voice drops. “Do you have the flakes?”
“Shit, is that what’s for?” Toni grins. She’s about to make a no doubt very bad joke about being a dad or something, when a voice rings out from across the parking lot.
“We’re partying over here if you wanna join!”
An icy, sweaty feeling washes over her in the same manner she knows it’s washing over Regan. She slips off her back in an instant.
“Hey, what’s the rush?”
Hands shoved in her pockets, Toni sidles up to the passenger door as Regan fiddles with the lock on the driver’s side. As if reading her mind, Regan says, “Just keep going, they’re not worth it.”
“He’s walking over,” Toni says, trying not to let the urgency show.
It must not work, because Regan says, “It’s not like I’m not trying,” and fiddles harder. “Fuck.”
“You need a little help there?” the dude-bro smirks.
“I’m good,” Regan says.
“Get the fuck away from her,” Toni says, striding around the hood of the car, and stepping in front of Regan. “Get away from her. I fucking mean it.”
“Just feeling sociable,” the dude says, as if he’s not a poster boy for ‘creepy man.’ He leans forward. “Maybe you could get in on it.”
It’s like an out-of-body experience, then, like she’s floating just a couple inches from her physical self, and all she can process is the blinding, white hot heat in her chest. She’s not sure what moves first, her arms or her mouth, but suddenly Toni’s shoving him hard and saying, “Fuck off.”
In the background, she hears Regan calling her name, and maybe if she were by herself she’d be able to deep breathe through this one and then go play basketball for three hours to cool off, but she’s not, and she doesn’t.
Toni isn’t even sure what happens, but suddenly she feels her hand strike something, and when a soft gasp rises up, she knows that it’s Regan.
Six tablespoons of butter. Three-fourths of a cup of sugar. Two eggs.
She knows it’s over right then in that moment. She plays it off as they talk, pushes it down as they collect themselves back to the car, and even acts surprised when, a few days later, Regan tells her to get in the car so they can talk, but she knows.
Six tablespoons of butter. Three-fourths of a cup of sugar.
The thing is, Toni always understood there was a chance this wouldn’t be it for one reason or another, but she never thought the end would be because of her own undoing.
Six tablespoons of butter.
Home? Not yet.
What Toni did to deserve a friend like Martha, she’ll never know. She wonders if it’s the universe’s way of making up for the fact that every other part of her life is at rock bottom, so she might as well have one good thing in her life.
Well, two good things. Martha brings her back to her place like a stray puppy, and Toni thinks that if anyone deserves to have a mom like Bernice, it’s Martha.
The thing Toni admires so much about Bernice is the way she’s kind, and generous, and just so good, so much so that it isn’t a question where Martha got it from, but at the same time, she doesn’t have the blind love. It’s a medium between her and Martha she wishes she was better at.
It’s easy to fall into a routine with them, too. She pays rent by helping them cook dinner on days she doesn’t have basketball games, and helps with breakfast on Saturday’s. She and Martha share a room like it’s just one long sleepover, and Toni actually goes to bed at a reasonable time now that she has someone to judge her for reading until midnight or later.
“You were out there a while,” Bernice comments, not unkindly though.
Toni eyes where she’s sitting at the kitchen table, and deposits her basketball onto the little bowl they use to keep it from rolling off. “Just one of those nights, I guess.” Bernice just watches her. “Martha go to bed?”
“She went up a few minutes ago,” Bernice says. She pauses, frowning into her teacup. “It’s been hard for her. How can you healthily process something you won’t admit to happening in the first place?”
“Therapy,” Toni suggests, sliding into the seat across.
Bernice cracks a smile. “Yeah, if she would even go.” Toni shrugs. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Toni asks warily.
“You ever thought about going to therapy?” Bernice clarifies, though of course Toni sort of knew that.
“I used to,” Toni says. She picks at one of her fingernails. “I was in a really nice home when I was thirteen, and, uh, they paid for it and everything.”
“And?” Bernice prompts. It’s a wonder at how just her gentle smile is able to freely coax information Toni wouldn’t even sell to someone.
“It helped, I guess,” Toni says, shoving her hands into her pockets. “I mean, you know about my… issues.” She forces a smile, but there’s no humor to it, and it comes out more like a grimace. “Regan said I’m like a fire. Passionate, but destructive.”
“Was she wrong?” Bernice asks.
“No,” Toni says. She tilts her head to one side. “Maybe you should be a therapist.”
“If you’re like a fire,” Bernice starts, carefully adjusting her grip on her mug, “Martha is like…” she waves a hand around airily, then tries for, “oxygen.”
Toni blinks. “Oh.”
“You need her,” Bernice says. “And she’s always there for you. And she gives you what you need. But it takes from her in the process.”
Being told she’s a toxic person through an analogy about fire and oxygen isn’t a situation Toni ever thought she’d be in, so her response is something like, “Okay,” as she tries to swallow down the lump in her throat.
“It isn’t just on you,” Bernice backtracks, as if she can practically see Toni shutting down in front of her. “Martha gives herself freely, and that’s something that has always been her biggest struggle.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m only telling you to be cognizant of the things you do. If you asked, Martha would give you the world, even if it meant she had nothing left.”
“Okay,” Toni says. She nods, staring at the lumps her fists are making in her sweater pockets, and nods again. “Yeah, okay.”
“Toni.” Bernice is looking at her with that expression she does, the one that makes Toni wonder if she sees her better than she sees herself. “I love you, you know that.”
“I know,” Toni reassures her. She nibbles at her bottom lip, willing her voice to stay steady as she says, “But Martha comes first, right?”
And when Bernice nods, admitting, “Martha comes first,” it almost sounds like an apology.
It’s almost a relief when they go on that stupid trip together. As she heads towards to the car that’ll take them to the airport, Toni looks back, just once. Something in her tells her she’s not going to come back, but that’s okay.
It’s not home.
All things considered, being stranded on an island could be worse.
Like, okay, the constant sunburns isn’t the best thing ever, and the way sand sticks to literally everything is a nuisance. The hunger could be less painful, the water always tastes kind of like either salt, algae, or fish, and the days are scorching while they shiver on the wet sand at night time.
Toni doesn’t think she’s been actually clean in at least twenty days, and she’s taken to chewing off her fingernails to keep the claws at bay. Her clothes are almost stiff with sweat and salt by the time she gets around to washing them, and… yeah, it kind of sucks a lot.
But at the same time, she doesn’t know when she’s been so at peace with herself.
Fatin seems to get her in a way that is almost reminiscent of Bernice. The effortless intuition makes her highly uncomfortable, but also means Fatin is the one Toni always goes to when she wants to talk about her feelings, or whatever.
Dot is probably the sole reason they’re alive, and has a way of keeping them all in check without ending up a total buzzkill. Leah is a breath of fresh air, considering she might be the only one more batshit than Toni is, and Rachel has this passionate drive to her that, if Toni were more self-aware, she’d recognize as eerily similar to herself.
And then there’s Shelby, who Toni, hand-to-God, doesn’t know if she’ll ever figure out.
According to their list of tally marks in Nora’s notebook, they’ve been on the island for twenty-two days. It’s not a lot of time. But considering Toni went from hate-obsessing over Shelby to practically falling in love with her, Toni decides, for her own sanity, that each day is really two days on an emotional level.
“If you guys could have anything to eat, what would it be?” Leah asks. It’s a stupid game they’ve been playing this whole time, and it really just makes them miserable, but they all chime in anytime anyone brings it up.
“Poke,” Fatin sighs. “Sushi rice, ponzu, spicy tuna, regular tuna, masago, and miso-mayo.”
“Biscuits,” Shelby pipes in. “Hot and fresh from the oven, spread with butter and homemade jam.”
“Blueberry muffins,” Toni says, a faint smile crawling onto her lips. “Made with six tablespoons of butter. Three-fourths of a cup of sugar. Two eggs. A half-cup of milk. One teaspoon of vanilla. One cup of all-purpose flour, one cup of whole heat. One tablespoon baking powder. One-fourth of a teaspoon of salt. Two-and-a-half cups of blueberries.”
“How do you have an entire recipe memorized?” Fatin asks, looking pretty scandalized.
“I think the real question is ‘why?’” Leah says.
Toni just shrugs.
So, yeah, the island isn’t great. They’re going to run out of food, they’re going to run out of fresh water, if they lose the lighter they’re absolutely screwed, and it’s a miracle none of them have had any real medical emergencies besides the oyster fiasco.
At the same time, though, Toni wonders if this could be it. As in, if this could be home, and if this is the family she’s been waiting for.
She wonders every night when they huddle around the fire to crack jokes, pass around snacks, and tell stories to each other, and wonders during the day when they fall into their rhythm of chores like a well-oiled machine.
Swimming around in the ocean with Rachel, or learning to do dives off of various rocks, and laughing into the seawater as Shelby and Fatin sit on the side and rate their jumps. Going on walks at sunset as a group, or sometimes just with one other person, and realizing it’s the first time she’s ever seen a sky that was completely untouched from the light pollution of civilization.
Playing Pictionary in the sand, and inevitably having the game dissolve into arguments because Rachel is convinced she and Martha are cheating, meanwhile Leah is wondering how it’s even possible to cheat at Pictionary.
Going on hikes for the fun of it, and Shelby telling her how she’s never really been around anyone who likes nature as much as she does, or laying out on the sand on a warmer night and listening to Shelby’s once-annoying-but-now-soothing Southern drawl tell her all about the constellations.
It’s times like those where the nagging feeling comes back at her.
What if this is home?
The answer comes to her as she and Shelby are sitting on their cliff and watching the sunrise one morning. Shelby is tucked into her arms, for once, and her head is turned inwards towards her chest so much so that it muffles her voice.
“Hm?” Toni murmurs.
Shelby lifts her chin. “I said, ‘I don’t wanna go home.’”
“What?” Toni tilts her head to one side. “Like, ever?”
Shelby shrugs as best she can from her half-lying down position. “I don’t know about ever, but I’m — well, honestly, I’m scared of what’ll happen to us when we get there. Of what’ll happen to me.”
“I don’t follow,” Toni says, shaking her head slightly. She pushes a stray lock of Shelby’s hair back, the bit that hasn’t grown out enough to be tucked behind her ear yet. “Realistically, by the time we get back, we’ll be eighteen.”
“So?” Shelby says.
“So… you can do whatever you want,” Toni says. She squeezes her a little, mimicking her words from their first real confrontation. “You’ll be free.”
Shelby smiles a little, but it’s more sympathetic than anything. “Free? I doubt that.” Before Toni can say anything, she adds, “Legality isn’t the only way of controlling someone. And my dad…” she trails off, but the message is clear.
In an instant, Toni knows the island isn’t home. It can’t be home. Their home is waiting for them, back in the real world, only it’s not any of her shitty foster ones, nor is it the house where Shelby grew up.
Their home is one they’ll build together, even if Shelby doesn’t believe that yet. For all the things Toni has ever done, she’d be content if the most important ends up being her showing Shelby all that the world has to offer her, and all that she can have.
Looking out at the horizon, which they’ve scoured for signs of rescue or other land a million times over, she just presses a kiss to the top of Shelby’s head and silently promises her that they will get back, and they will find their place together.
Not yet, but someday.
“What’s next?” Shelby asks, peering into the stand mixer. “Just did the six tablespoons of butter.”
“Two eggs and one teaspoon of vanilla,” Toni says, hand darting out to grab the little bottle from the pantry. “Then the dry ingredients by hand.” She examines the pantry again. “It’s kind of weird not knowing where anything is. I guess it’s only our first day living here.” Silence. She turns. “Shelby?”
“We only have, like, an hour until they start getting here,” Shelby says, eyes flitting between her mixer and the clock. “These are not going to be done in time.”
“Babe, it’s fine,” Toni says, wrapping her arms around her middle from behind. She rests her chin on Shelby’s shoulder as best she can. “They’re our friends, they don’t care.”
“I know,” Shelby says, still fretting, “but this is our first time hosting anything here.”
“Still can’t believe it’s ours,” Toni muses.
Shelby turns around, finally tearing her eyes away from watching the butter and sugar combine, and slings her arms around Toni’s neck. “I know. I can’t believe we can even afford it.”
“Well, I guess there’s a silver lining to getting kidnapped into a life-threatening experiment,” Toni shrugs. “Thank you, Gretchen Klein, for paying for this beautiful house and the remodel.”
“Almost makes me want to forgive her,” Shelby laughs, looking around.
“Oh,” Toni says airily, “I did that the second the judge ruled that she owed us, like, millions of dollars.”
“You have the moral backbone of a chocolate eclair,” Shelby says.
“I regret showing you John Mulaney,” Toni says, rolling her eyes. She leans up on her tippy-toes, and presses a swift kiss to Shelby’s lips. “Now, get to work, wife.”
“You wish,” Shelby scoffs, and Toni just laughs on her way into the backyard, trying not to think about the ring she has hidden at Martha’s house.
The urge to cry comes on slowly, then all at once. She’s fine as they start arriving, first Martha of course, and then Leah, Fatin, and Dot all together, with Rachel and Nora being the last ones to roll up.
“Happy almost birthday,” Toni mumbles, marveling at how natural it feels to bring Leah in for a hug.
Leah chuckles into her shoulder. “Don’t remind me,” she says, pulling back. “God, twenty-seven. It doesn’t even feel real.”
“It’s like the island somehow aged us ten years, and also paused our emotional development at the same time,” Dot chimes in. She eyes the living room from her seat on the couch. “Sick place, by the way.”
“Courtesy of Gretchen Klein,” Fatin grins.
Toni is fine as they all crowd around the little coffee table in the living room, and she’s fine as they start chatting aimlessly about what they’ve been up to, and she’s fine as they revert almost instantly back into the dynamic they’ve grown so comfortable in.
She’s fine as she pulls Leah up to help in the kitchen, and she’s fine as she whispers to Fatin about the ring, and she’s fine as she and Shelby have a moment in their room just to hold each other and breathe together.
But, with great horror, she realizes her lower lip is trembling when she comes back out and looks at the mountains of food piled on the coffee table. It’s such a heavy contrast to the way they used to sit on the beach around a fire, and attempt to savor their ration of like, ten macadamia nuts per day.
Toni pushes past it with a bite of muffin, trying to swallow down the rock hard lump in her throat as she does, and the moment passes.
She makes it through dinner, she makes it through their tour of the whole place, and makes it through the inevitable good-night, waving off the last of them as it approaches midnight, and closing the bright yellow door front behind them.
Exhausted, she collapses on the couch next to Shelby. “We’re never having people over ever again.”
“You say that,” Shelby laughs, “but come Thanksgiving, I just know you’re going to offer to host.”
“Fuck Thanksgiving,” she mumbles. "Christopher Columbus was a prick."
“Friendsgiving, then,” Shelby says.
Toni arches an eyebrow. “That’s the whitest thing you’ve ever said.”
She knows Shelby isn’t wrong, though. She knows all eight of them will jump at any chance to get together, and that they’ll find away to hang out for every holiday, even if it’s just a reason to be together.
They just sit there for a few minutes, and the lump in her throat comes back with a vengeance as she settles into the couch and thinks about how this is much too good to be true. The tears are inevitable, she knows that, especially when Shelby breaks the silence.
“Welcome home,” Shelby murmurs into her ear.
She’s smiling in a way that makes it seem like she knows how much that means to Toni. Toni thinks back to all those nights they whispered their darkest secrets under the safety of the moonlight, and the way Shelby perfectly described the way her own childhood mirrored the loneliness and misery Toni grew up with.
And, well, Shelby very well might be one of the only ones who knows how much this means.
She swallows thickly, and silently presses Shelby’s knuckles against her lips. Closing her eyes, a single tear falls, and then there are arms around her, pulling her close.
Welcome home, is whispered again and again and again. With every soft kiss to the top of her head, and every chaste peck traveling down the side of her face until they reach her lips. A hand comes up to wipe the tear away, and then she’s settling back into Shelby’s arms.
Her eyes stay closed, because God, somewhere deep inside is the never-ending fear that this is all some sick joke. Or, maybe it's her imagination. An incredibly lucid dream. Some other figment of reality.
She’ll open her eyes, and she’ll be back on the cold, sandy beach of the island, only this time she’s huddled up against a dying fire. Or maybe she’ll be back at Martha’s house, with the pit in her stomach telling her she doesn’t belong. Or she’s at Reagan’s, reliving over and over the moment she knew she wasn’t welcome anymore. At the kitchen table with the Mitch and Christina, the police station with her mother.
But when she opens her eyes, she doesn’t see any of that.
She sees the fireplace that crackles high and tall, with a pilot light inside they’ve promised to keep lit at all times as a reminder of a time when the thought of fire was more comforting than damn near anything else.
She sees the empty walls with sparse decorations, but beyond that, she sees future ones. A landscape painting from Nora, a photograph from Dot’s travels, and space for so many picture frames of happy, fruitful memories and moments that have yet to come.
She sees the empty chairs that have long since grown cold after the party’s end, but in them, she can see their future kids tucked up against each other as they prepare to watch a movie, or play a game, or even just sit and be around each other. She sees the way they laugh, and smile, and the way they call her ‘Mom,’ and the way they will never know anything but unadulterated love.
She sees the spot where a a Menorah from Leah will sit perfectly, because despite mending things somewhat with her parents, she still doesn’t feel comfortable spending the holidays with them.
She sees the door leading out to the backyard where they’ve already got plans to set up a swing set and a trampoline, and where she knows Martha will inevitably find herself most weekends to help Shelby in the garden.
She sees the coffee table, barren now, but which will no doubt soon be overflowing with magazines and board games and books. She sees Fatin kneeling alongside the rest of the kids instead of perched on the furniture like the adults, and quietly whispering in their ears how to cheat in Monopoly.
She sees the kitchen which, unconsciously, they designed to look so much like Toni’s childhood kitchen. She can practically see herself sitting there at six years old, watching her mom hum and sing around the pots and pans. She can actually see the way she’ll do the same with her own daughter at the table.
She sees the doorway that leads to hallways that lead to more rooms that lead to spaces for kids to sleep, and dreams to be had, and love to be shared rather than just taken.
For the first time ever, Toni looks around and sees her future.
Toni wishes she could reach back and tell her past-self that ‘Not yet’ wasn’t a threat, nor was it an admittance of failure, nor was it any of the things she was lead to believe. ‘Not yet’ was a promise. A promise that that place she was leaving couldn’t have been her home simply because her real one was out there for her somewhere, just waiting for her to grow up and find it.
“Welcome home,” Shelby whispers again.
And with the comfort of that knowledge floating around the room like a prayer, Toni allows herself to cry, because yeah, she is.