Lou had already been in New Zebedee a couple of days by the time Debbie arrived. It had taken some adjusting. One of the advantages to Danny was that he’d let them do their own thing. Of course, that wasn’t necessarily ideal for teenagers, but they’d been able to muddle through, more or less. Lou privately thought that for her at least it was the feeling of wanting to make her mothers proud. That had only intensified after the visit back in May, but it had been grounded too, which had helped.
She hid it better than Debbie, but she could be a perfectionist too. It was less about generic people pleasing, because she’d learned much younger that she would never please everybody. It was far easier to say fuck you to people who didn’t like her for whatever reason. The problem with that was that because she’d never really known what it was like to have someone be proud of her, to believe that she could be better, do better… she’d never learned to moderate those feelings the way Debbie could (sometimes, when she took a moment to breathe deeply and think about it). It was more that she would have done anything to make her moms happy. When she hadn’t really had a sense of what that would be, it was easy to push too hard and set unrealistic standards. She could see that now, with a little distance. It was funny how even a couple of months out from eighteen, she felt very strongly that she never wanted to go back to being younger ever again.
She wasn’t a natural student, and most people took one look at her and made assumptions, teachers included, but she had always been diligent about keeping her grades up and doing the work. Debbie was pretty obsessive about it too, but both of them knew it was the pathway to a better life. What that meant was different to each of them. Debbie’s home life hadn’t exactly been good for very different reasons to Lou, but she’d never been on the streets, and Lou was adamant that she was never going back there. She devoured every piece of knowledge offered to her like it was her first meal after being lost in the wilderness. She wasn’t open about it, she didn’t share how things were going, but she worked, both to build the best chance for herself that she could, and because in the back of her mind she knew that there were two women who had sacrificed for her, who loved her, and she didn’t want to ever make it seem like she was ungrateful, or that their sacrifice had been in vain. Debbie understood some of it, but she didn’t understand all of it.
Coming back had changed that, and Lou was honestly painfully grateful. It had given her a chance to breathe, and to reset her expectations to something a little more normal, because it turned out that working flat out and pinning your entire self-worth and hope for the future onto one thing wasn’t sustainable. This was more than she’d ever hoped for, and it was helping.
When Debbie arrived, she’d already settled into more of a routine, and she had to admit she was feeling the benefits. Resetting her sleep cycle hadn’t been easy, but it was a work in progress, and although she hadn’t found a job yet, she was looking, and she had a few chores around the house. It was nice to have some responsibility. Mostly it was nice to be clear what was expected of her. Danny had done his best, but he wasn’t that much older, and although he could do the guardian thing well enough, he’d never signed up to be a parent. Structure you made yourself could only take you so far.
The car pulled up, and Lou spotted it from the upstairs window, hurrying downstairs and calling to Carol and Florence, “They’re here!”
Carol emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands, and Florence came out of the work room just as the doorbell rang.
It was Lou who answered it, her smile as big as her face as she threw it open to Debbie, standing there with her suitcase. The embrace was tight, and the kiss was deep, and Lou loved the way Debbie relaxed into her. She was proud of that. It was nice to feel helpful.
Danny cleared his throat a little awkwardly, and Debbie and Lou separated. Lou helped Debbie get her bag inside and took her hand to lead her up the stairs to their room.
Danny ran his finger around the inside of his collar, confronted with the reality of Carol and Florence for the first time in his life.
“Now… you’re sure you don’t mind taking the two of them in for a little while? They’re good kids, but they can be a handful.”
“We’re quite sure,” Carol replied, an uncompromising firmness belying the airiness of her tone.
“I can’t really understand why they came here in the first place, but… well, I guess there’s a lot I don’t really get about this. I just wanted to meet you, I’m sure you understand. I might not be the best at this, in fact I think I’m a pretty shitty parent, but I’ve done my best for them. So I had to check you out too, for my own peace of mind. Debbie’s smart but… well, it’s not that unusual to not make good decisions when you’re eighteen, so.”
“Oh no we quite understand,” Florence replied with a smile, “Why don’t you come in for a cup of coffee? I just made a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies?”
Danny inhaled, and coughed a little to cover his longing.
“Well I guess if you’re really sure I wouldn’t be causing an inconvenience…”
“Not at all. We’re quite sure, aren’t we Carol?”
“Of course. And I’m sure the girls will be down soon so they can say goodbye too.”
“How do you know each other?”
“We were matched with the girls through a mentoring program.” The lie was polished, but they had a lot of time to prepare a cover story. “There was a charity that paired troubled teenagers with older people who could give life advice from a position of non-judgement. It was all a penpal system, so there was a degree of anonymity it was hoped would help people open up. We were paired with them both… goodness, it must be four years ago now?”
“Right,” Carol agreed. “They’re both wonderful young women. Of course, now that they’ve graduated, their involvement with the program has ended, but we know this transition can be rough so we wanted to offer them the chance to have a little stability before they jump straight into adult life. It can be so hard to get thinking time these days. And while you’ve done your best for them – the girls have been full of nothing but praise – the girls are anxious not to be a drag on you and the pace of city life can be a little overwhelming. So although since they’re eighteen now they don’t need your permission, we’re delighted to have your blessing.”
“You have a beautiful home,” Danny agreed, “And I think they’re lucky to have you. I’d love to stay for a cup of coffee.”
“Wonderful. We want to make sure you’re awake for the drive home.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“You’re welcome, Mr Ocean.”
“Call me Danny.”