"It's going to be a little overwhelming for you, Velvet. Be ready for that."
"I think I am."
Jean pauses to study me. "No, hon. I don't think you really are. I know you've been brave and strong. I can tell you're a good kid. Responsible. But this isn't like anything you've ever done."
She knows where I work because I had to write it all down, so I study her right back. "I can change a diaper, I'm okay with it."
“It's more to it than that,” Jean says, then hesitates before saying, “she'll need help with so much. Eating. Bathing.”
I think about them in the cages, eating dog treats and covered in filth. “But...sometimes...they get better, right? I mean on their own.”
Jean shakes her head. “You shouldn't get your hopes up.”
“But they do,” I say stubbornly. “Like people who've had brain injuries can re-learn stuff. They can get better.”
“And sometimes,” Jean says gently, “they keep getting worse.”
I'm silent. Jean shakes her head a little softly. She takes out a business card, scribbles something on the back, passes it to me. "That's my home number. Call me if you need to talk about anything, hon. Okay?"
I push the card into my pocket. "Are you just trying to get me to go out with your son?"
Jean laughs. "Maybe. He could use some friends his own age. But...really, hon. Call. If you need to talk, okay?"
"Thanks." I take a deep breath and stand, gripping the tote bag. "Can I take her home, now?"
"Sure. I had Leslie taking care of her. Getting her all ready."
This time, Jean doesn't take me down the hall to the kennels. She takes me to a bright, clean room with lots of exam tables and instruments. The smell of disinfectant is strong, but here it's a clean smell.
Inside, sitting on the edge of one of the tables, is my mom.
They've cut her hair shorter to just below her shoulders in a style that would be smoother if she hadn't been running her hands through it. Still, it's clean. So are her face and body, from what I can see. Her clothes are clean, if a little too big and mismatched. She's not wearing the daisy blouse.
"Here we are." Leslie is a short woman with dark curly hair and glasses. She takes my mom's hand to help her down from the table. "C'mon, honey. It's time to go."
I've been taller than my mom since I was in seventh grade, but it's still strange for me to look her in the eye instead of having to stare up. She's looking at me, her face blank. She has a scar over one eyebrow she never had before.
"What's that from? Can you tell me? Is it from the surgery?"
"Oh, no. That's from something that happened before they brought her in. I can check the records, if you like, but they should be in her file that Jean gave you."
"It's okay. It's not important. Hi, Mom." I'll check at home. Right now, I'm looking her over.
You can't see the electrodes, or the scars from where they put them in, unless you're looking in just the right spot. The collar, on the other hand, is impossible to miss.
My mom says nothing. She's looking at me, but not like she sees me. More like she's just staring at nothing. Just like that little boy. Tyler, I think. He has a name.
"Are you ready, hon? You have everything you need at home?"
I heft the tote bag. "I think so. Yeah."
"Fine. Then you're ready to go."
I hold out the coat I brought for my mom to wear, and the gloves. They'll cover up the restraints Leslie shows me how to slip onto my mom's thin wrists. She doesn't even wince when we pull them tight, bringing her hands together so close she can't possibly use them for anything.
At the door, Jean stops me. "Are you sure, hon? This is a huge, huge responsibility. And nobody says you have to take her. You're not required."
"She's my mom." It's the only answer I can give.
Jean nods. She hugs me before I can stop her, and I'm surprised but I don't pull away. Beside us, my mom stands quietly, looking off into the distance. Jean lets me go and holds my face for a second or two in her hands while she looks into my eyes.
"You be safe, now. You take care."
Outside, it's getting dark and colder. February in Pennsylvania can get pretty frigid, and the cold seems worse after the two boiling summers we've had in a row. My mom walks a step behind me, kicking my heels, until I step to one side and link my arms through hers.
"Schlemiel, schlemazel," I say, but of course she doesn't answer me with the line from one of her favorite childhood shows, the one she has all the DVDs of. No "Hassenpfeffer Incorporated." No nothing but the sound of her breathing and her boots crunching on the salt someone was smart enough to put down on the sidewalk.
We wait at the bus stop. The bus is late. We're the only ones waiting. I don't talk. I guess there's nothing to say.
The bus pulls up to the stop, and I press my mom forward. Deke, the bus driver who's seen me a thousand times, frowns and gets out of his seat.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. You can't bring that on here."
"What?" My mom's up one step but I'm halfway in and out of the door. The heat from the bus is blasting my front, but my back's still freezing. "What do you mean? The tote?"
"No. It. That." He jerks a thumb at my mom's face. She doesn't even flinch.
"This is my mother." I push her forward. She goes another step. Deke doesn't get out of the way, and when I step up, it's too crowded for comfort there in the stairwell.
"No. That's a Connie. You can't bring it on the bus. Take it off."
"She's neutralized, she's got a collar –"
"I said no!" Deke's face turns ugly. "Get it off my bus! I decide who rides the bus! And it's not getting on!"
Then he pushes her, which pushes me. I'm too surprised to push back. I fall out of the bus. My mom steps back, one of her boots landing on my hand. The tote bag goes sprawling, dumping the contents into the dirty snow.
"Off the bus!" Deke shouts. I can't believe it, but he comes out and pushes her back again. He looks down at me. "Don't you ever try to bring that on the bus again, you hear me?"
Then he gets back on the bus, closes the door, and drives away, leaving us on the street in the dark and the cold.
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