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CHAPTER 5
OLLIE BLAESE HAS HIS DAY

MOM HAD ONE DATE OUTFIT. Back when she was going on dates with Dad, it sufficed because they didn’t go on many dates, so enough time usually elapsed that the blue dress could be re-worn without fear of recognition. Now, it was unlikely whatever man saw her in the dress would see her a second time. Mom had become very selective.

 

“He really is very nice,” she told Elle, while Elle plucked at Mom’s hairstyle to give it an effortlessly tousled sort of look. “He heard about the deli from the cards I have with my products, you know, at grocery stores. Before he saw that card, his plan was to go home and make a Dorito casserole. Can you believe that?”

 

“No,” Elle lied. Ollie really had turned out better than expected. He’d asked Mom on a date during his second visit to the deli.

 

Her mother stared at her own reflection in the mirror before them, pouting her lips at her dark hair with its streaks of gray. “You’re so kind to help me get ready, Elle.”

 

Elle didn’t answer that. Anne’s accusations were still rankling in the back of her mind. And she could see from Mom’s Readings that she didn’t really mean it, anyway. Elle’s help was as expected as Ericka’s patience and Dad’s absence; it was just who she was to Mom. 

 

Mom stood, brushing out blue wrinkles. She really was beautiful, in all the genetic ways Elle had missed out on and Ericka had acquired – big, dark eyes, graceful nose, cascading curls of dark hair – and Mom had a way of carrying herself that overwhelmed you with her looks while leaving you convinced that she wasn’t trying. Ericka would learn that skill, Elle was pretty sure. Her younger sister watched Mom closely when she could. It made Elle all the madder that Mom was so absent, and Ericka was only left with a sister who didn’t know how to dress, or carry herself, or do much of anything besides apply liberal amounts of lipstick.

 

“Where are you going?” Elle asked Mom, burying the voice that roared I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care!

 

“The Chicken House,” Mom replied. “That chicken salad place.”

 

“That’s…unique,” Elle tried.

 

“He’s been before and said he really liked it,” Mom explained. 

 

Another strike against Ollie, Elle thought darkly. A man who takes a woman to a chicken salad restaurant on their first date is not a man who can be trusted with serious decisions. “I’m sure it’ll be amazing,” she said to Mom.

 

Ericka waited downstairs in case Ollie came to the door early, but she bounded halfway up the stairs when she heard Elle and Mom making their way down. “I wanna see!” she squeaked, her grin overwhelming her thin face. Mom stopped right there on the stairs and did a full, slow-motion spin, heels and all, her head tilted up so the stairway light fell along the hair Elle had pinned into an effortlessly perfect bun. Ericka cooed and fluttered and brushed at flyaways like she always did, and then Ollie knocked and Elle and Ericka scrambled up the staircase so it would just be Mom when the door opened. The door closed, and they leaned back into the shadows, their smiles fading for their own reasons.

 

“It still feels weird,” Ericka said, slumping down on the top step. 

 

“Yeah,” Elle agreed.

 

“I mean, I’m used to your matchmaking, but it’s just…Mom, you know?”

 

“My matchmaking?” Elle repeated, with a glance at her younger sister. Did she know?

 

Ericka grinned. “Every friend we’ve ever had, you’ve tried to set them up at some point. And with people like Mom who go out and find people themselves, you do whatever you can to give them a happily ever after. Doing her hair and all that. I mean, it’s a lot more than most daughters would do, right? It’s because you’re an inherent matchmaker. A whole Jane Austen character.”

 

“Do you read Jane Austen in middle school?” Elle asked in mock astonishment.

 

“Shut up!” Ericka shrieked, flicking some stair dust at Elle’s feet. “I’m taking college credits this semester!”

 

That silenced Elle. Ericka was taking steps every day that Elle had taken two years ago. The difference was, Elle had known they had the money for her college. Ericka didn’t have that confidence. 

 

And Elle did remember her matchmaking days. They were in the past: before Dad left, before college, before she had anything to worry about when it came to food or the pictures in her head. She’d used her Reading (without knowing what it was) to sniff out people who liked each other in her friend group and orchestrate their relationships. It had been her and Ericka’s special project, and even though, looking back, it hadn’t been particularly right or helpful, Elle was glad they’d done it. Interfering in other peoples’ lives was the first time she and Ericka worked together as a team. It had taught her that her little sister liked to win; she liked challenges; and she hated mushy romance. Ericka was a great partner, and surprisingly good at interpreting Readings, and knowing all this made it even harder that Elle couldn’t share with her sister the plan to get Mom remarried. Ericka would never support it. She still thought Dad might come back, or that Mom was finally happy being single, or that the last thing the daughters needed to do was interfere in their mother’s love life. Elle watched her sister’s Readings a little longer to make sure there was nothing suspicious, then let herself sink back into her secret. “I bet he has the ugliest chin acne in the whole world.” Even though she’d seen him already and knew it wasn’t true, it made Elle smile to see her sister’s reaction.

 

“No!” Ericka retorted, thundering down to the kitchen to grab the chocolate chips and whipped cream out of the freezer. “She showed us a picture, remember?”

 

“Ericka, if you believe that picture was up-to-date, then your education is even more depressing,” Elle said. “It was, like, ten years old at the least.”

 

“But Mom saw him!” Ericka argued. “I mean, he showed up to the deli!”

 

“So? Men with acne are allowed in the deli. Plus, he probably had a mask on. You can hide anything behind a mask.”

 

“She definitely wouldn’t have gone out with him if he was gross,” Ericka asserted, crossing her arms and picking a chocolate chip out of her spoonful of whipped cream with her teeth. Elle felt her stomach burn. Her head had been spinning lightly all day, but the most she’d been able to manage was a pair of toaster pastries and three olives. She didn’t get to choose what worked and what didn’t, when it came to the Afterthoughts. She eased herself into a kitchen chair.

 

“Desperate times call for ignoring acne,” she tried to smile, but Ericka (too smart for her own good, too observant for someone without any Readings to help her) had seen Elle falter. She didn’t say anything, but the Reading Elle picked up was worried, thin, straggly, and broken. Elle hated when Ericka Read that way. But her sister didn’t say anything. Maybe because she just didn’t know what to say.

 

They stayed in the kitchen, trying to guess how the date was going and talking about ordinary little everythings, until they heard the car pull into the garage. Elle and Ericka fell silent and watched as the door unlocked from the outside and Mom walked in, alone, and set her keys in the rack to the door’s right and her mask on the hooks below.

 

Elle’s shoulders slumped.

 

Another failure.

 

Mom tossed her heels in the corner and stomped to her room, leaving a sack of leftover chicken salad on the kitchen counter. “It wasn’t a blue dress restaurant,” she informed them as Elle and Ericka stared at her for an explanation. When her door shut, Ericka turned to Elle and pointed at her own head, her eyes wide with what she already knew.

 

Elle sighed. “Yeah, they’re not going out again.” The Reading was brief, but it told her that much. Ollie Blaese was a bust.

 

 

 

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