Author: Ashley Poston
Home was just a word to Mal. It meant about as much as she meant to the other kids at her old schools. As much as she evidently meant to Mom. Mal had been in plenty of homes.
When foster care told her, “We’ll find you a home again,” she didn’t understand what they meant. A roof over her head or her Mom? They’d find neither, she guessed, because there was no home left for her, and her Mom had disappeared with the moon.
A dead feeling twisted her gut. She didn’t want a home. She didn’t want to go somewhere just to sleep in a cozy bed and eat frivolous foods in a house she’d never seen before. With a man she’d never met before. Foster care said he was her godfather. Those still existed outside of Italian mobster families?
“It’s only temporary. We’ll find your mom,” the police had promised. “She’s bound to turn up somewhere.”
Mal knew that was a big, stinking lie. Mom wasn’t bound to turn up anywhere. If she didn’t want to be found, they wouldn’t find her. A week ago, Mal had returned to a deserted house. Mom’s clothes were gone. Her jewelry missing. She hadn’t left a note or directions or even pizza money. She hadn’t left… anything. When Mal realized what had happened, what it meant, she felt like an abandoned bag of luggage in the rain.
And now she was on her way to her godfather’s house.
She turned onto her side, and reached to pull her Northface up over her shoulder, but it fell off onto the floor instead. The train wasn’t cold, necessarily, but loneliness made everything a little colder, even under the air vent. As cold as the sky without the moon, she thought.
The train compartment jostled ever-so-slightly with the steady hiccup of the railroad. The wheels squeaked underfoot like a symphony of mechanical birds.
“In the meantime,” a spry woman with foster care had given her a bag of M&Ms---to console her?---and said, “your godfather has asked you to come stay with him. An Ethan Grant?”
Mal didn’t know who the hell Ethan Grant was, and it must’ve been quite evident on her face because the foster care worker went on to explain the qualifications of Ethan Grant, as if they outweighed everything Mom worked hard to be. Successful businessman. Brownstone off of Park Avenue. He even has a son. Which just thrills Mal, of course. There is nothing quite like staying in an alien house with a family of strangers.
“Won’t that lovely, so you don’t feel as lonely,” she’d come to conclude.
Lonely. Right. Mal would feel lonely even if they stuck her in an auditorium full of people who loved her. There was no cure for abandonment---she couldn’t even be shipped to an actual family member, but a knock-ff, because she didn’t know any. Or didn’t have any. Mom had never said much either way.
The worst part was that Mal should have seen it coming. The signs were all there---she could remember her Mom wandering the house in the dead hours of the night, muttering to herself. Mal would catch her leaning against the kitchen sink on nights with full moons, moonbeams spilling onto her face through the window as she spoke with it. That didn’t frighten Mal as much as the thought that the moon might talk back.
But Mom had thrown her off that morning. She’d been cheerful and outgoing as always, all smiles and kisses right up until Mal left for the school bus. Maybe if Mal would’ve paid closer attention, she could’ve stopped Mom from leaving. Or she could’ve went, too.
Sighing again, she sat up and grabbed her Northface from the ground. If she tried to catch some sleep, she knew she wouldn’t be able to because her legs wouldn’t stay put and her mind would circle like a vulture around in her head, picking at all of the little thoughts and baubles, and the last thing she wanted to think about was her godfather. But between living in an abandoned house and somewhere else, she’d choose somewhere else in a heartbeat. She’d never been good at making friends, anyway, so the friends she did have at school would wonder where she’d gone for a few weeks, and move on. Mom had uprooted her enough times in her grand tours across the country for her to realize that.
Standing and putting on her Northface, she slid out of the compartment and wandered down the hallway. The train jostled, rocking back and forth, like a crib. She thought she’d seen a dining cart when she boarded the train, and she was kind of hungry. When was the last time she’d eaten? Yesterday?
That sounded about right.
“You’ll be on the first train to Penn Station,” said the overly-cheerful foster lady, sliding a ticket and a meal pass across the desk, as if Mal had some sort of disease that she didn’t want anywhere near her. “Maybe you can sleep on the way?”
Yeah, sleep. If the foster lady cared enough, she would’ve seen the prescriptions for sleep medications on her record. She would’ve known that Mal and sleep didn’t mix well---at all, really. Sort of like daylight and vampires.
When she finally found the dining compartment, it was almost empty, save for a single man in a booth, flipping through yesterday’s paper and sipping a cup of tar-black coffee, and the waiter. She sat down in the furthest seat from the man, not sure why she wanted to stay so far away, and gave the waiter a tight-lipped smile as he approached her. He was a tired guy who looked like he needed a few hours of sleep, too.
“Coffee and… do you have any Poptarts? Something sweet?” she asked. She sorely missed when Mom would come into the room, freshly-baked cinnabun or cookie in hand, as if she could sense her sleeplessness. The sweetness would soother her enough to face a few hours of sleep.
“We have honey buns,” he replied.
“That’d be awesome.”
“Cream and sugar?”
“Please,” she said, “and as much as you can.”
He chuckled, “I’ll have that right up for you, ma’am.”
Ma’am. He must’ve been from the south. She’d lived in South Carolina for a while---Charleston. Her Mom loved it there, and would disappear to the ocean every full moon, and come back just before sunrise. She did a lot of crazy things, now that Mal thought about it. She’d always just pretend to ignore it, and chalk it up to her Mom being, well, Mom. She’d never known anything else. Every midsummer they’d light candles and celebrate the moonrise, and every equinox they’d count the stars. Every solstice they’d drink wine and dine on cheese and crackers, and always leave some out.
“For who?” Mal had asked once. She was six and a half, and curious about everything. “Whose it for?”
Mom had smiled and tousled Mal’s auburn curls. “For all the rest of us,” she had replied, leaving her daughter with more questions than answers. But Mal learned not to ask them anymore, because they would only multiply, the hows and whos and whys. So she went along with her Mom’s ways, carried on the whimsy of a woman without a sense of direction.
Because of the way Mom was, Mal had never gone to the doctor. When she had the sniffles, she’d drink a nasty tea, and when she hurt herself she’d slather a salve over it. When she was sad, Mom would twine dandelions into her hair, and when she was happy they would go on picnics and adventures and explore every nook and crevice in the place they called home, for however brief a reprise.
Home was only a word to Mal, but Mom was her entire world. Without her, she felt like buoy adrift on the Artic Sea.