Buoyed by her success in settling down her restless and homesick son, Kath crossed the hall and knocked on Stella’s door. A baseline thumped spasmodically behind the door. Overtones of a whiny pop diva’s voice bled through like a mosquito on speed. Kath winced. Stella knew she couldn’t stand that song. It was, she realized, probably why Stella listened to it incessantly. As acts of rebellion go, it wasn’t the worst. Deeply irritating, of course, but Kath could do irritating too. She grinned. You’d have one less problem without me, girl? Ha!
She knocked as she pushed the door open.
“Mo-om! What about privacy? Why can’t I have a lock on that door? What kind of hell is this you’ve brought me to?”
Kath raised her hands in front of her to fend off the attack.
“Woah!” she said. “A, I knocked; B, who said you couldn’t have a lock? The fact is the door doesn’t currently have a lock, that’s all. And C, what kind of tone is that to take with your mother, missy?”
Oh God, she sounded like her mother. In the bad old days. Still, she couldn’t back down now.
“And could you please turn that ‘music’ down? My ear drums are going to split.” Had she really just done the air-quotes thing around ‘music’? Yes, she had.
Stella, curled up on her bed, looked small in this big new room. She was clutching her iPod. Her ever-present notebook was beside her on the bed, its pages scrawled with tiny writing. She flipped its cover closed as Kath approached. It took all Kath’s self-control not to reciprocate the preteen’s eyerool. Stella did, however, turn the volume down on the auto tuned mosquito noises.
“I’m never going to get to sleep. It’s too loud out there.”
Kath mentally pictured the street outside: empty sidewalks, roomy yards, token streetlights dripping weak spots of light onto the sidewalk for the occasion late night dog walker; a far cry from the busy Waterville sidewalks that had nudged up against the kids’ bedrooms bringing city lights, thumping baselines from vibrating, pimped-out Honda Civics and snatches of shouted conversations that had been an education in colorful vocabulary for every neighborhood kids down through the generations.
Stella bolted out of her bed and stood, hands on hips by the window.
“Listen,” One palm up, she indicated the offending outdoors as if her mother must be not only hard of hearing but also hard of thinking.
Nothing. Well, apart from the insects doing that come-and-go chirping thing she associated with movies about country life. There were some shirrings of air conditioners too, but apart from that…then there was a scuffle as if something was digging in the flower bed outside.
“What’s that?” she asked. Stella dropped the drama queen act and stared back at her, wide eyed.
“Maybe it’s a possum,” Kath said. “Out here in the wilds of Pennsylvania, they might have possums. What is a possum anyway?” Kath struck a dramatic pose. “What does a possum even look like? Are they carnivorous. Are we on the menu?”
Stella looked like she might crack a smile.
“Possum!” she repeated, letting the smile break through, briefly.
“Would it help if I let you have the iPod and headphones for tonight?” Kath asked.
She thought she saw a hint of the little girl Stella had been until about two months ago, when this move had come up and she had vaulted into the teen years. A wave of softness flooded over her, then Stella arched an eyebrow at her and mumbled. “thanks,” and the moment was over.
“It’s going to be–“Kath began.
“Fine. I know. So you keep telling me.” Stella threw herself back down on to her bed and scrolled studiously through her music, her back to her mother.
Kath slowly and silently counted to ten — which, she remembered somewhat belatedly, only ever served to make her angrier — then decided to let her Angry Young Woman stew. A thousand opening lines died on her tongue and she turned back to the door.
“Sleep tight, Stella,” she said.
After she closed the door Kath waited for a moment on the landing. From behind the closed door, she thought she heard the faintest, “And don’t let the bugs bite.”