Iona’s fingers froze on the buckle of her bicycle helmet as her door slowly opened. Sweat trickled from her temples. Someone was forcing their way into her apartment. Which weapon should she choose—the pen, the kitchen knife, or the lock on her bike?
When the door finished opening, her neighbor Elizabeta Tamir stood in the door frame. “Iona! Thank heavens, you’ve come home.”
Mia stood at her mother’s side. Sloe-eyed with a mane of jet hair framing her round face and pointy chin, the eight-year-old girl gripped a grease-stained fast food bag in her hands. Knobby knees protruded underneath navy school shorts while skinny elbows hooked an oversized cartoon character backpack.
Iona knew all the little girl’s valued possessions resided in that pack, knew the fear of being shuttled to yet another location without warning. Iona’s pack in junior and high school had carried the same heft. She clamped her lips together before taking the mother to task.
Beta shooed her daughter inside the apartment. “I picked up a shift, last minute, and need to be at work. My ex was able to take his sons, but Mia….”
Beta’s white pressed shirt disappeared into her black slacks. Her skid-resistant shoes reflected the popcorn ceiling. Crisp clothes for a faceless server at one of the town’s ritzier places. The uniform of human widgets.
“Of course. Mia is always welcome.” Iona stepped back, preempting the poor single mother speech and the reminder that Mia’s dad was currently serving time for putting her and her mother in the hospital. Iona’s fingers made quick work of the straps of the bicycle helmet, and she hung it on a coat stand that boasted more antlers than a herd of elk.
Backpack thumping against her spindly legs, Mia shuffled to the Goodwill-special couch sagging against the wall. A quilt Iona’s mother had made covered the back and seats in an Irish chain. Hefting her backpack onto the couch, Mia sank to the floor and used the square, glass coffee table to hold her dinner. Nimble fingers quickly unrolled the bag and set her chicken nuggets, dipping sauce, and fries on a greasy napkin.
Iona strode the four steps into the kitchen and opened the cabinet by the sink. She removed a plate from the mismatched stack, then tugged a cloth napkin from the drawer and set them in front of Mia. After smoothing Mia’s hair, Iona faced her mom. “How long will I have the pleasure of her company tonight?”
Beta set an iPad in front of her daughter then wiped her hands on her pants. “I’m not sure. Some rich guy is hosting ‘a sky is falling’ party. I was told the tips should be really good, but the hours will be really long.”
“Why would someone have a Chicken Little party that lasts all night?” Iona took a steadying breath. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been taken advantage of by Beta and her need to find baby daddy number four.
Beta laughed, a deep throaty sound that drew people’s attention. “Not a Chicken Little kind of ‘sky is falling party’, but a meteor shower party. Don’t you watch the news?”
Meteor shower? Iona searched her memories. Maybe there was a mention on one of the websites she visited “Sorry. I don’t watch the news.”
Nor did she have a TV. Why waste the money on cable or satellite? She spent enough on her internet connection. Still, she wasn’t going to be so easily distracted. “How long will you need me?”
Beta chewed on her bottom lip not even making a dent in the waxy red color. “All night, I’m afraid.”
Iona winced. “It’s Monday. Mia has school, and I have work tomorrow.”
If someone had declared a national holiday due to the meteor shower, she would have remembered.
“I’ll pick her up at soon as I get off work.” Beta promised, turning to leave. Not once did she meet Iona’s gaze.
“My alarm rings at six-thirty.” Iona’s stomach clenched. This wouldn’t be the first time Beta abused the privilege.
Mia held her tongue between her teeth as she dipped a nugget into some clear red sauce.
Iona knew the little girl paid attention to every little dip and rise in inflection, every folded arm, or pursed lips.
The familiarity of the drill made Iona’s teeth itch.
“Six-thirty is fine.” Beta waved as she bounced down the stairs. “Just have her in her school clothes, so I can drop her off at child care and take a nap.”
Son of a gun. Beta was looking for Baby Daddy number four when her shift ended. Iona mentally swore then crossed the landing and gripped the railing. Her palms dug into the cool metal. “And we’re going to the park.”
“That’s fine.” Beta waved and hustled from view.
Iona watched her flicker in and out of the puddles of light before disappearing around the corner of another apartment building. Was there even a meteor shower tonight? She glanced at the sky through the web of pine boughs. Not even a star twinkled in the night sky. She’d check once they got to the park.
Pushing away from the railing, she pivoted on her heel and entered her studio apartment, shutting and locking the door behind her. Who was she to judge where Beta found a home? Iona still hadn’t quite defined the word. This apartment wasn’t really home, was it?
Her twin bed was tucked against a wall near the French door to the back balcony. A yellowing photo of her mother and father stood on the second-hand end table holding her lamp and phone charger. The sofa faced the TV stand bearing an oversized computer monitor complete with a wireless keyboard and Mac mini next to the router box. Only a few items would go with her to Europe, the rest into the small storage unit she rented or back to the thrift store from whence they came. How could this be a home if everything could be so easily given away? Iona wrestled her thoughts back to the present.
Legs stretched out under the coffee table, Mia had transferred her food to a plate. She’d carefully draped a cloth napkin over her lap and nested the French fry and nugget holders inside each other. She didn’t look at Iona and kept her hope contained by looking at her dinner. “Are we really going to the park?”
“Of course.” Iona unstrapped her lunchbox from the back of her bicycle. Crossing to the galley kitchen in two strides, she tossed her dirty containers in the sink. “We’ll go right after we finish our dinner. The weathers too nice to spend all night cooped up inside.”
The little girl smeared grease across the case of her iPad as she shut it. “Do you think we will see some meteors?”
Iona refrained from promises. She vowed never to be an adult who made and broke them. “I hope so. And we can make a wish on each one we see because in my day they were called falling stars.”
Iona placed a handful of carrots on her plate before tossing the rest of the bag into the fridge. Removing an old margarine tub, she popped the top then removed radishes, celery sticks, and a few slices of jicama to her plate. For protein, she scooped out some jalapeño hummus, cubes of Dubliner cheddar, and a few slices of prosciutto. She grabbed the bag of ancient grain crackers then placed her plate next to Mia’s on the coffee table.
The little girl’s eyes focused on the array of vegetables as she held a limp fry in her fingers.
Iona smiled. It had taken the girl four weeks to try a carrot. From then on, she’d been hooked. Iona couldn’t wait until fruit was in season. “You know the rules. I get one fry for every vegetable you take.”
Mia nodded and slowly selected five fries. The more she liked a veggie, the longer the fry.
Leaving her to make her selection, Iona took two glasses from the cupboard. “I have some tea. Do you want a glass?”
“Is it the unicorn one?”
Unicorn. Iona shook her head. It wasn’t until she saw the blue unicorn wishes ice cream at the store that she’d made the connection. “Yes, it’s blue raspberry.”
“Then, yes, please.”
Iona hadn’t taught the little girl manners. She’d come with them. Being polite was almost as important as being quiet if you wanted to fit in. Sadly, they didn’t work all the time. Iona poured the blue tea into the glasses then joined Mia. “How was school?”
The little girl pursed her lips. Five fries lay on Iona’s plate. Mia’s contained two carrots, a piece of celery, a radish, and a slice of jicama. “Jeannie McNamara said math was hard today. But I showed her the trick you showed me, and we decided that it was easy.”
“That was nice of you.” Iona stuffed one of the fries in her mouth and quickly chewed. Cold grease coated her tongue and palate. She suppressed a shudder. Cold fries were not her favorite. “And how are you doing in math?”
“I have some problems…” Finishing a carrot, Mia selected the slice of jicama.
“We could look at them before or after we go to the park.”
Iona suspected there were more than some math problems Mia wanted help with. There always seemed to be a lot of homework, and the girl was only in third grade. Didn’t anybody believe in playing anymore? “How about half before and half after?”
She glared at the electronic babysitter. Computer games didn’t count.
“Okay.” Mia bit into the jicama. Her nose wrinkled, and she opened her mouth as if to spit the food out.
“Swallow it. You don’t have to eat the rest.”
Mia quickly swallowed, dropped the sliver of jicama, then gulped half her tea. “That’s nasty.”
“No, not nasty. What do we say about foods we don’t like?”
Mia wiped her tongue on her napkin. “Not my favorite?”
“That works.” Iona returned one fry. “Just so you know what veggie to avoid in the future, that is jicama. It tastes like a raw potato to me, which is why I dip it in hummus. Have you tried hummus?”
Iona swirled the slice through the bean mush, scooping up enough to cover the jicama, then popped it in her mouth.
Mia’s eyes narrowed. Setting her jaw, she picked up the discarded jicama and ran it across the surface of the hummus, mimicking Iona’s actions. Still squinting at the food, she sniffed it then nibbled at the end. She chewed at the front of her mouth before going to the side then the back molars and swished it around her mouth like she sampled a fine wine. After a moment, she swallowed. “Tastes like bean dip but not.”
Mia transferred the fry back to Iona’s plate. They finished their meal and, working side by side began to clean up their mess.
“Besides math, do you have any other homework?”
“Nope. We…” Mia froze, fisting the pair of dirty napkins. “Our plant. I forgot to check our plant.”
Mia ran through the bedroom space, feet pounding on the floor through the carpet. The knob rattled before she threw open the door.
Iona sighed. Drying her hands on the towel, she followed. Her pot garden was just that—empty pots, no plants. She didn’t have a green thumb. It was a good thing Marcus Stanislav was in charge of growing the fungus for their new project.
On the back balcony, Mia perched on her knees. A crayon label of cilantro drooped from a popsicle stick jutting from the soil. She frowned at the pot. “Did you forget to water?”
Clearly not trusting Iona’s reply, Mia shoved her finger into the soil. Clumps of dirt clung to her digit.
“I’ve been watering them. The seeds just don’t seem to want to sprout.” Iona crouched next to the little girl. “Perhaps we should plant all of the seeds. The packet was on clearance. Maybe the seeds were past their expiration dates and are duds.”
“Duds?” Mia’s nose wrinkled as she tried out the word.
Iona raked the crumpled seed packet off the table where she’d left it and unrolled the torn top. She poured the tan rounds into her palm. “Dud, as in doesn’t perform as expected.”
“Dud.” Mia smiled, proud of herself for learning a new word. She held out her hand for the rest of the seeds. “Can we plant them in the rest of the pots?”
“Sure, why not.” Iona’s knees crackled as she rose. There was plenty of dirt in the pots, why not add the seeds? “Do you want me to get the ruler again?”
Iona respected rules. They helped her know her place and manage her expectations.
“Nah, I remember from my finger.” Mia pointed to a millimeter above the first digit of her index finger. She carefully set two seeds on her finger and poked them into each pot.
Iona shuffled into the kitchen, filled a pitcher with water, then returned. Leaning against the door jamb, she handed off the plant duties.
Mia carefully added water to each pot. “One of them should grow.”
Since there had to be thirty seeds left, the odds should be in their favor. “I should think so.”
“Can we go to the park now?” Mia returned the pitcher to the kitchen sink.
Locking the back door behind them, Iona ran her tongue across her molars as she thought. The deal had been homework first and the park later but… She checked her watch — seven PM. Iona’s bedtime was in two hours if the little girl cooperated. “We can’t stay too long because you still have homework.”
“Yes.” Mia fist-pumped, then swiped her fingers on her school uniform shorts and skipped toward the front door.
“Do you want a water bottle?” Iona grabbed a reusable insulated cup and filled it with water from the refrigerator filter.
“I’m good.” Mia threw open the door and charged onto the landing. Like a racehorse at the gate, she strained toward the stairs.
After securing the door, Iona pocketed her keys and galloped down the stairs to keep pace.
“My friend said she’d be in the park watching the shower.”
“It is a nice night for it.” Iona held open the gate. After Mia walked through, she made sure the latch engaged. The black sky unrolled above them despite the light pollution from the apartment complex. She hoped the park was dark enough to see at least one or two falling stars. She certainly could use the luck for the project and prize money ahead.
The hair on Iona’s nape prickled as she reached the parking lot. She glanced right then left but didn’t see anything. In fact… the light over the garbage dumpsters was out. Her eyes strained. A shadow moved. Was someone over there?
Mia slipped her hand into Iona’s and tugged. “Come on.”
Iona walked fast to keep up. They wove through the cars in the parking lot, jumped the parking barrier, and jogged across the gravel landscaping. She panted for breath by the time they paused at the curb.
Mia looked left then right then left again. “It’s safe now.”
Iona bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Did the little girl get brownie points for helping the aged cross the street? She hurried across the two lanes despite the lack of traffic.
“I’ll be at the swings.” Mia pointed to the dark, hulking shape of the covered playground area, then forged ahead.
A handful of lights on the corner of the sandlot barely penetrated the night. Strings of lamps illuminated the meandering paths, but few touched the park’s interior. A couple stretched out on a blanket over the grass. A larger party sipped beer around picnic tables lit by cell phones. Someone grilled meat.
Iona watched Mia’s silhouette merge with another child’s. Hand in hand, they rushed to the swing sets.
Iona shuffled along the sand-covered walkway to a series of benches. She found a spot near the swings and listened to the metal creak, children’s calls to go higher, and laughter. The park glowed briefly then dimmed, then glowed then dimmed.
“It’s started,” someone whispered on her right.
Iona glanced up. Bright white streaks pinstriped the night sky. There must be dozens of them. Iona closed her eyes and made a wish. When she opened them, the scene hadn’t change.
Fabric rustled on her left. A woman aimed her cell at the sky. “Wouldn’t it be funny if each one was an alien ship come to take over?”
Her companion snorted. “All hail our alien overlords.”
Iona shook her head. Not funny in the least. Her phone buzzed in her pocket. After one last glance at Mia’s silhouette, Iona tugged out her phone.
Marcus had sent a text message. <The meteor shower is a good omen for our project.>
She held the phone to her chest and chuckled. She quickly typed in her reply. <Scientists aren’t supposed to be superstitious.>
A green bubble appeared with his reply. <Too late. I already made my wish.>
<Me, too.> She gazed across the park. What the heck? She checked the sky and then the grass. Was it her imagination, or did the grass echo the glowing path of the meteors?
Available Friday 7/31/2020 only on amazon