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“Is the assignment too hard?” She frowns as she ladles cassoulet into my bowl. “Do you want me to find you a new tutor?”
“Oui, non, et non,” I say in response to each question. “Everything’s fine. I’ll turn it in tomorrow, I promise. I just lost track of time.”
She nods and begins slicing and buttering pieces of crusty French bread for me. I know she wants to ask something else. I even know what she wants to ask, but she’s afraid of the answer.
“Is it the new neighbors?”
Carla gives me a sharp look. I’ve never lied to my mom. I’ve never had a reason and I don’t think I know how to. But something tells me what I need to do.
“I’ve just been reading too much. You know how I get with a good book.” I make my voice as reassuring as possible. I don’t want her to worry. She has enough to worry about with me as it is.
How do you say “liar” in French?
“Not hungry?” my mom asks a few minutes later. She presses the back of her hand against my forehead.
“You don’t have a fever.” She lets her hand linger a moment longer.
I’m about to reassure her when the doorbell rings. This happens so infrequently that I don’t know what to make of it.
The bell rings again.
My mom half rises from her chair.
Carla stands all the way up.
The bell sounds for a third time. I smile for no reason.
“Want me to get it, ma’am?” Carla asks.
My mom waves her off. “Stay here,” she says to me.
Carla moves to stand behind me, her hands pressing down lightly on my shoulder. I know I should stay here. I know I’m expected to. Certainly I expect me to, but somehow, today, I just can’t. I need to know who it is, even if it’s just a wayward traveler.
Carla touches my upper arm. “Your mother said to stay here.”
“But why? She’s just being extra cautious. Besides, she won’t let anyone past the air lock.”
She relents, and I’m off down the hallway with her right behind me.
The air lock is a small sealed room surrounding the front door. It’s airtight so that no potential hazards can leak into the main house when the front door is open. I press my ear against it. At first I can’t hear anything over the air filters, but then I hear a voice.
“My mom sent a Bundt.” The voice is deep and smooth and definitely amused. My brain is processing the word Bundt, trying to get an image of what it looks like before it dawns on me just who is at the door. Olly.
“The thing about my mom’s Bundts is that they are not very good. Terrible. Actually inedible, very nearly indestructible. Between you and me.”
A new voice now. A girl’s. His sister? “Every time we move she makes us bring one to the neighbor.”
“Oh. Well. This is a surprise isn’t it? That’s very nice. Please tell her thank you very much for me.”
There’s no chance that this Bundt cake has passed the proper inspections, and I can feel my mom trying to figure out how to tell them she can’t take the cake without revealing the truth about me.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t accept this.”
There’s a moment of shocked silence.
“So you want us to take it back?” Olly asks disbelievingly.
“Well, that’s rude,” Kara says. She sounds angry and resigned, as though she’d expected disappointment.
“I’m so sorry,” my mom says again. “It’s complicated. I’m really very sorry because this is so sweet of you and your mom. Please thank her for me.”
“Is your daughter home?” Olly asks quite loudly, before she can close the door. “We’re hoping she could show us around.”
My heart speeds up and I can feel the pulse of it against my ribs. Did he just ask about me? No stranger has just dropped by to visit me before. Aside from my mom, Carla, and my tutors, the world barely knows I exist. I mean, I exist online. I have online friends and my Tumblr book reviews, but that’s not the same as being a real person who can be visited by strange boys bearing Bundt cakes.
“I’m so sorry, but she can’t. Welcome to the neighborhood, and thank you again.”
The front door closes and I step back to wait for my mom. She has to remain in the air lock until the filters have a chance to purify the foreign air. A minute later she steps back into house. She doesn’t notice me right away. Instead she stands still, eyes closed with her head slightly bowed.
“I’m sorry,” she says, without looking up.
“I’m OK, Mom. Don’t worry.”
For the thousandth time I realize anew how hard my disease is on her. It’s the only world I’ve known, but before me she had my brother and my dad. She traveled and played soccer. She had a normal life that did not include being cloistered in a bubble for fourteen hours a day with her sick teenage daughter.
I hold her and let her hold me for a few more minutes. She’s taking this disappointment much harder than I am.
“I’ll make it up to you,” she says.
“There’s nothing to make up for.”
“I love you, sweetie.”
We drift back into the dining room and finish dinner quickly and, for the most part, silently. Carla leaves and my mom asks if I want to beat her at a game of Honor Pictionary, but I ask for a rain check. I’m not really in the mood.
Instead, I head upstairs imagining what a Bundt cake tastes like.