Lounging on the over-sized chair, her legs tucked up under her, Victoria was reading one of those trashy romance paperback novels that featured a bare-chested hunk holding a gun in one hand and a martini glass in the other. After a light dinner of Cobb salad with raspberry vinaigrette, she had retreated to the family room and picked up the book to pass the time while she waited for Brandon to return. It was the first eighth-grade party he’d been invited to, and she was more nervous than he.
Although she’d been reading for the last half hour, she paid little attention to the story because she kept glancing at her phone on the end table beside her, checking for the little green light indicating she’d received a text message. Brandon had promised to check in with her during the party. Maybe he was having too much fun to message his mom. His friends would probably think it lame.
Another half an hour passed when she looked up from her book, surprised to hear the scratching sounds of a key being inserted into the deadbolt at the front door. A moment later, she heard the front door open and then close, followed by the sound of Brandon engaging the deadbolt and security chain, just like she taught him. She set the paperback on the end table beside the lamp and then swung her legs over the side of the chair.
Without looking, she stuffed her feet into her awaiting slippers and glanced at the time on her phone. It was just after eight-thirty, much too early for Brandon to return from the party, which was scheduled to end at ten, though she suspected it would run later. This was not a good sign. Not good at all.
She slid the throw blanket over the arm of the chair, stood, and walked toward the kitchen. Before she crossed half the distance, she heard his bedroom door close. Brandon was home early, didn’t text her to check in after arriving at the party, and now he went straight to his room without talking to her. Obviously, something must have happened at the party to make him leave so soon. Something he didn’t want to talk to her about.
She paused a moment, debating with herself on whether she should go to him, or wait until he came to her when he was ready to talk. The mother instinct won out over her friendship instinct—no contest.
Her slippers whispered against the pine wood floors as she passed through the kitchen and then padded down the narrow hallway that led to two decent-sized bedrooms and one-shared bathroom. She stopped outside the first bedroom, which stood directly adjacent to the bathroom, and paused with her hand on the knob, again debating whether she should talk to him right then or wait for him to come to her.
Brandon was always a shy boy who, unfortunately, had grown more introverted after his father passed away seven years ago. Victoria hoped by now, at age thirteen, he would shed his skin of shyness as he grew into a confident, self-assured young man. Yet he was just a few months from graduating from eighth grade and he had very few friends, none of them close the way she’d been close with her friends when growing up.
In the seven years that they had lived in this house, Brandon never once brought a friend home, nor had he ever asked to go to a friend’s house after school—although he did tutor Jake at the library a few times each week, but Jake was in high school and not interested in befriending a lowly eighth-grader.
Victoria was concerned about how Brandon would adjust when making the transition to high school later this year, leaving the relatively small middle school for the huge district high school. She was afraid he’d either be swallowed up in the system or become fodder for bullies and bad influences. She never considered a middle ground when she thought about both extremes.
Before she could make her decision whether to enter Brandon’s room, the knob turned beneath her hand and the door jerked opened. Brandon looked at her for a moment, then turned away and said, “You can stop standing behind my door like some creeper, Mom.” He plopped down into his chair at his desk and turned on his computer.
“How did you know I was there?” Victoria asked, trying to assess the boy’s mood.
Without looking at his mother, Brandon said, “I saw your shadow under the door. And I know you, Mom. You’re a woman of habit.”
An awkward silent pause stretched out before Victoria asked, “So, how was the party? You’re home a bit early.”
“It was fine,” the boy said. That was his answer to most everything these days, whether things were good, bad or ugly. She didn’t understand why it was so hard to get answers from teenagers, why they couldn’t just say what they were feeling. She’d given up trying to understand, and, instead, focused her energy on trying to be supportive.
“Did Mrs. Renda drive you home?”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “No. I walked.”
“What? Why, Brandon? It’s dark out there. Anything could have happened.”
“Relax, Mom,” he said defensively. “Nothing happened to me, okay? I just wanted to come home, so I did. Mrs. Renda was busy with the party and I didn’t want to interrupt her.”
“Then you should have texted me. I would have picked you up. I don’t want you walking alone at night.”
“Fine, Mom—whatever. I’ll call you next time.”
Victoria stood at the threshold a moment longer, then took several steps into the room, considering what to say. She knew if she pushed him, he’d clam up, go into full-on moping-teen mode, but at the same time, she felt there was more that she needed to hear.
Brandon continued to stare at his computer monitor while the computer booted, and Victoria picked up his coat from where he’d thrown it onto the bed. She pulled the sleeves out and shook the garment before hanging it in the closet.
“Did you eat anything at the party?”
“I had some hors d’oeuvres.”
She stood next to him now and tried to comb down his stubborn cowlick with her mom-comb, otherwise known as her fingers.
“Not really. I wouldn’t call cocktail wieners and mini quiche fancy. Especially the frozen and microwaved kind.”
“So, any cute girls there?”
Brandon blushed and swatted her hand away from his hair. Trying to flatten his cowlick on his own, he said, “Please stop messing up my hair, Mom.”
“Stop avoiding the question,” Victoria said, realizing she’d probably struck a nerve.
“I’m not avoiding anything. Stop being a helicopter, Mom.”
She made a forced-laughing sound. “You obviously have no idea what that even means, kiddo. I give you plenty of space.”
“Yeah, you’re right. So, give me some of that space now, please.”
Ignoring his comment, Victoria said, “Linda—Mrs. Renda—told me she heard Katie Duffy thinks you’re cute, though a bit . . . what did she say? Emo?”
“Mom!” Brandon said, and spun in his chair. “You obviously don’t know what Emo even means. And Katie Duffy is stupid.”
“Okay, my bad; don’t get all Emo on me,” Victoria said and laughed. Girl problems, she thought. She was more curious now about what had happened at the party to make the boy leave so soon. Secretly, she hoped he would open up to her about his teenage drama.
Brandon got out of his chair now and stalked over to his dresser. He opened the top drawer and pulled out a pair of jogging pants and held them out in front of him, like a shield.
“I’m going to change now, so you might want to get out if you don’t want to see me naked.”
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Victoria bantered.
Frustrated, Brandon threw the jogging pants at her, which she easily caught in mid-air. She shook them out and then started to re-fold them, but the boy quickly snatched them out of her hand. Taking her arm in his, as though he were a boy scout escorting an old woman across the street, Brandon led her toward the door.
After a few steps, Victoria halted and turned to look at him. “Honey, if something’s wrong, you know you can talk to me, right? I was a teenager once. I can relate. You don’t have to be embarrassed about telling me stuff.”
“Mom, please, I’m fine,” he said, and once again got her moving toward the door. “I just want to relax and play some games and then go to bed.”
At the door, Victoria paused, about to say something else, but instead, she kissed him on the cheek. Whatever his problems were, he needed to learn to deal with them. She couldn’t always be there for him, although she desperately wanted to be. Besides, he seemed okay, right? Whatever happened at the party couldn’t have been that bad, right?
“Good night, Bran,” she said.
“Good night, Mom. And don’t call me that. Makes me sound like something old people eat so they can poop regularly.”
He closed the door on her. She stood there a moment, wondering if he was truly going to be okay, if she was raising him properly, if she was doing right by him. She was a single mother, doing the best she could, given their situation. If she failed him, it was not for lack of trying. Brandon was right; she was a helicopter parent. She involved herself—perhaps a bit too much—but that was the only way she knew to protect him.
In the kitchen, she used the Keurig to brew a cup of black tea before retiring to the family room, where she curled up on the chair, pulled the throw blanket over her, and resumed reading her book. She found she could focus on the story now that Brandon was back home and safe.