Ice cream always tastes better when it’s banned. Well, not banned, exactly, but Mom specifically told me to come straight home after school today because she has some kind of special announcement. Friday is mint chocolate chip day, though. It says so in curly green ink at the top of Saskia’s planner, in the space where she’s supposed to write her homework for language arts. We’ve been using it to plan our hunt for the best ice cream shop in the neighborhood instead. And I’m not about to skip mint chocolate chip day.
No matter how curious I am about Mom’s announcement.
“Okay, let’s get down to business,” Saskia says, clicking her pen.
I nod through bites of ice cream, pulling my map out of my backpack and laying it carefully on the table between us. I spent all of math class drawing it. Mom’s worried about my math grade, but perfecting my map-making abilities is way more fun than probability. No matter how important Ms. Albright insists percentages and negative numbers are, I already know that the probability of using them in real life is less than zero. Maps, though, I need in real life all the time. Right now, for example, a map is all I need for us to get the perfect summer plan down.
Saskia leans over, holding her melty ice cream off to the side so it doesn’t dribble onto my outline of downtown Manhattan. I only drew the parts of the city where we’re allowed to go on our own. Our moms agreed that we’re both allowed to travel within a fifteen-block radius of our apartments.
Popping the crunchy tip of the cone into my mouth, I dig through my backpack for the stickers I picked out from a stationery store last month. They cost more than the ones I found at Duane Reade, but they include a bunch of pizza slices with googly eyes, and that was worth the extra $1.25. I peel one off and stick it over Carmine Street on the map.
“We have to start with Joe’s Pizza, obviously.”
The end of sixth grade is in just one week, which means we have a week to plan a whole summer’s worth of outings. There are endless summer days to fill, just the two of us.
First up: a pizza tour.
I dot my map with pizza stickers while Saskia draws ice cream cones over our favorite shops. She gets the curl of the scoop right every time.
“Okay, what’s next?” she asks. “Cupcake wars challenge? Museum art reenactment? Fancy tea shop party? Beach day?”
“Beach day,” I say with a wistful sigh. Getting caught in ocean waves is the best kind of fun. The beach kind of sucks in the city, though. Coney Island is great and all, but it’s always packed with people, and Mom has to assign family swimming shifts so that there’s someone to sit on the towel and watch our stuff.
Instead, I type tea places into the maps app on the cell phone Mom finally let me get a few months ago. I’m just about to copy the first place I find onto our map when the phone rings.
“Autumn?” Mom says as soon as I pick up.
“We’re on our way home,” I say quickly.
Mom laughs. “I know you stopped for ice cream.”
I groan. The only downside of having a phone is the Find My app, which Mom insists on using to make sure I don’t get kidnapped. Or stop for ice cream.
“It’s mint chip day,” I say.
“As much as I hate to interrupt mint chip day,” Mom says, and I can hear the smile in her voice, “it’s family game night. I need you home, okay?”
I guess that’s one other downside to finally having a phone: Mom can always call to force me to leave Saskia and go hang out with Harrison, aka Harristinks.
Every Friday used to be family game night. We’d order pizza and play Monopoly. My big brother, George, would always let me have the lucky race car but be a real sore loser about it when I bought his favorite hotels. Mom would then sneak up for the win as we argued. The winner--always, always Mom--would get to pick our movie for the night, and she’d make us watch something that sounded super dumb but would turn out to be great.
But two years ago Mom started dating Harrison, and I got to kiss family game night goodbye. It became family game night plus Harrison and his boring daughter, Linnea, who always ends up ruining it. Harristinks is a science teacher, and having him over for game night feels exactly like inviting Ms. Albright to my living room to teach me more about negative numbers. Last time, he spent the whole night telling us about some lesson he was planning to teach on the phases of the moon and the shifting constellations, which made even Monopoly boring. On the rare occasions he’s not talking about space--and seriously, they’re rare--he’s joining forces with Mom to try and make me bond with Linnea.
Harrison doesn’t even live in New York; he lives in some random town in Connecticut, which means they have to take a long train ride to come ruin our Friday tradition. That’s how determined he is. I don’t get why Mom invites him. Soggy cardboard is funnier than his jokes.
Ever since he started coming around, I’ve done my best to skip family game night, but Mom always sees right through my attempts.
“Start heading home right now, Autumn,” she says sternly. “I have a special announcement today, and I don’t want you to be late.”
I sit up straighter, curiosity spiking through me again. “What is it?”
Maybe she broke up with Harristinks. She could do so much better than a boyfriend so boring he needed to go all the way to space to try and find a personality.
“I’ll tell you when you get here,” Mom says. “Hurry.”
She says goodbye and hangs up.
“I have to head home,” I say as I carefully fold the map, and Saskia’s shoulders slump. “Mom says she has a special announcement.”
Saskia and I leave the ice cream store and cross the street to the subway entrance. Outside, it smells like city summer: hot garbage and chocolate ice cream. The air gets hotter and stuffier as we go down the stairs to the subway platform.
Saskia crosses her fingers at me. “Maybe the announcement is that your mom broke up with Harristinks.”
I laugh. Saskia and I are always on the same wavelength, like our thoughts are written in our eyes in a language only the two of us can read. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
I hate Harrison, and not just because he’s the most boring person I’ve ever met in my entire life. Boyfriends aren’t supposed to be a thing for moms. Before Harrison came along, Mom spent all her free time with George and me. Family game night was just the three of us, making the rules exactly the way we like them to be. Saturdays were for cool art projects and exploring our neighborhood. And every evening after school, we’d have dinner as a family, and George would teach me and Mom new recipes he found after scouring his collection of cookbooks. Now most of the weekend is Mom posting the emergency phone numbers on the fridge before she waltzes out the door to go on a date, leaving George to watch me.
Boyfriends are supposed to be for my friends, who keep asking each other who do you like? during Truth or Dare at sleepovers and carefully track who’s asking out who. I always pretend to have a crush on Tim Walton even though I don’t really care about him that much. It just feels easier to pretend I like a boy than try to explain why I still haven’t had a crush on anyone at all.
Just because Mom and Dad got divorced and he went away to California when he got remarried to Can-I-Talk-To-The-Manager Lisa about two seconds after my first birthday doesn’t suddenly turn boyfriend into a Mom-appropriate word. Because when it comes to Mom, boyfriend is just a synonym for ditch Autumn with George as a babysitter and go roam around the city with the world’s most boring space nerd instead of hanging out with my supercool daughter.
Saskia taps my shoulder. “You okay?”
The train pulls into the station, brakes screeching, and I wait until it comes to a stop before answering. “Yeah. I just hate Harristinks.”
“That’s why we named him Harristinks,” she says with a grin as we get onto the subway car. “Well, that and his cologne.”
I grin at the memory of the day I told Saskia about meeting Harristinks. He’d smelled thick with body spray, the kind that always clogs the halls at school when we pass a group of eighth-grade boys. I haven’t smelled it on him since, but he stinks enough metaphorically that the nickname stuck.
“Maybe after today you’ll never see him again,” Saskia says.
That gets me to smile. “You’re right.”
Saskia gets off just two stops after we get on. I wave goodbye when she stands up, pulling the corners of my lips down. She mirrors me, making a sad face as she leaves the train.
I ride one more stop by myself, knocking my knees together as I wait. As soon as the train hurtles into my station, I jump out of my seat, bubbling with eagerness to get home. Maybe the announcement really will be good news.
I run up the sidewalk until I make it to our building. I take the stairs to our second-story walk-up three at a time, my muscles stretching under me. It’s way too many steps to take at once. I trip over the last one and end up sprawled all over the landing at the top of the staircase.
My brother swings our apartment door open, his eyebrows raised so high they disappear behind his scraggly bangs.
“You okay down there?” he asks.
I purse my lips at him as I get up. George had a growth spurt last summer, and now he thinks he’s all that just because he’s almost six feet tall and almost done with high school. If you ask me, that’s a lot of almosts, but he thinks it gives him bragging rights.
“I’m fine, Cocoa Puffs.”
We always call each other cereal names. I threw a temper tantrum when I was a kid once (well, more than once, I did a few of those when I was a toddler, but one time in particular) because I thought it was stupid that my name didn’t change with the seasons. George, who was ten at the time, calmed me down when he called me Cheerios after the cereal box Mom had on the kitchen table. The temper tantrums went away, but our habit of calling each other by cereal names stuck. Cocoa Puffs is our insult cereal, because both of us think it tastes like sugar barfed into a plastic bag.
“Autumn?” Mom’s voice comes from inside, and I forget about being fake mad at George.
I bounce past him and shrug my backpack off by the coat hooks. It lands on the floor with a thud. I kick off my shoes next to it and run into the living room to dive onto our couch.
“Are we going to start with Monopoly or Settlers of Catan?” I ask, propping my feet up on the coffee table.
Mom comes in, her palms hugging a mug of coffee. She nudges my feet off the table with her toes, and I tuck them under one of the couch pillows.
“It’s been ages since we’ve played Catan,” she says. “But let’s wait until Harrison and Linnea get here.”
Her words make my stomach go queasy. The news can’t be that good if Harrison and Linnea are still coming.
“Should we prep our dinner order for later?” George asks. He’s always thinking about our next meal. The Chinese take-out menu dangles from his fingers, even though it’s useless because we always order the same exact thing from this place: chicken and broccoli, beef lo mein, pork fried dumplings, two types of fried rice, a large order of soup, sesame chicken, and spring rolls. The first time we ordered, they sent our food with seven forks, and we were too embarrassed to tell them it was just the three of us.
“Let’s skip to the announcement. I had--” I cough. Mom didn’t technically give me permission for the ice cream. “I’m not that hungry.”
“I know you had ice cream, so you don’t have to pretend. Besides, we’re waiting for Harrison and Linnea to get here,” Mom says in that reasonable adult tone she uses when I am being especially not-reasonable and not-adult.
George sighs. “Since you’re all content to let me starve, I’m setting up Settlers of Catan.”
I sit up to help him spread the pieces out on the table. We’re arguing over how to arrange the land tiles for the game when the key spins in the lock. I jump at the noise. It’s been months since Mom gave Harrison a key to our apartment, but the sound of someone else letting themselves in when all three of us are home still gives me the creeps.
The door opens and Harristinks himself walks in, Linnea trailing behind him. She gives me a small wave, which I return. Mom always says we should be friends, the way grown-ups do when they assume that just because kids are the same age, they automatically have to be best buddies. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not like Mom is best friends with every random forty-four-year-old she meets, so I don’t see why I should be friends with every twelve-year-old she finds.
Mom bounces up from her chair and crosses the room to kiss Harrison. I look away, because blech, and George makes a face at me. Harristinks holds Mom’s hand as they sit next to me on the couch. Linnea sits cross-legged on the floor by the table, staring at the game.
Mom gives me a pointed look. I sigh at her before shifting to face Linnea.
“How was your week?” I ask.
She mumbles a response so quietly, I can’t make out her words at all. Her voice is always so meek and small and painfully shy that it’s impossible to hear her. It doesn’t matter, though. We’ve had the same polite exchange so many times that I know exactly what she’s said without needing to hear the words.
“That’s great,” I say back. “Mine was good too.”
She says something else, and I lean forward, straining to make out the words.
“Sorry?” I ask.
Red stains splotch across her pale cheeks as she forces herself to speak up. “I was just saying I’ve never played this game before.”
Copyright © 2023 by Auriane Desombre. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.