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Trade Paperback
336 pages
Jan 2006
Warner Faith

Leave it to Claire: A Novel

by Tracey Bateman

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When I'm sitting in front of the computer, time means nothing to me. Whether I'm staring blindly at the screen, praying without ceasing as I beg God to take away writer's block, or whether I'm on a roll, burning up my keyboard as the words pour forth-like I just won an Oscar and this is my list of people to thank. I completely lose my sense of time and space and go on and on, oblivious to the orchestra playing "Get off the stage!" Or in this case, oblivious to the fact that my daughter is about to go ballistic because I forgot she needed a ride. Like five minutes ago.

"Come on, Mom! If you don't get down here, I'm going to miss kickoff."

I picture Ari downstairs in her cheerleading outfit, and I feel anxiety building. I don't want to be the one to make her late. I'd never, ever hear the end of it.

"Hang on!" I call down, hoping to buy a little time. "Just a couple more minutes, and I'm all yours." After two full days of writer's block, I'm finally on a roll.

The characters in my latest novel opened up to me today and started living out the story faster than I could type. "Time's ticking away, Ma. Are you coming?" Sheesh. What does "Hang on" mean?

My jaw clenches. Interruptions drive me crazy. Especially now, when my hunky, albeit reluctant, hero Blaine Tyler is making his long-awaited move.

My novel-which, really, should have been on my editor's desk two weeks ago-is finally wrapping up. The romance is coming together just like every romance should (only I was starting to worry that this one wouldn't). And Ari is worried about kickoff?

In a few well-placed words, Esmeralda is going to get the kiss of a lifetime. Her toes will curl, her pulse will race, she'll feel things in her stomach she's never felt before-although if I were Esmeralda, I would have stopped waiting for Blaine a long time ago and either made the first move myself or started dating Raoul, the pool guy. But that's just me. My faithful readers want that happy ending, and Blaine's the one with the steady job, so . . . "Mo-om."

"Sheesh. Okay, already," I yell down to my impatient offspring. "And we do not raise our voices in this house, young lady!"

Duty calls.

I push away from my desk, rereading the last sentence as I stand. How can I bear to leave them like this? Blaine's hand cups Esmeralda's flushed cheek as he lovingly moves in for the . . .

"Fine, Mom. I'll walk." Never thought I'd say this, but I can't wait until that girl gets her driver's license.

I sigh. Yeah, I really do, just like a breathy character in one of my novels. I punch Ctrl+S to save my work. Blaine's waited this long, I guess he can hold that pucker for twenty more minutes until I get back. Then I'm wrapping up this last draft, taking two days-tops-to read over all four hundred manuscript pages, and off it goes to my longsuffering editor.

I'm still muttering as I slide my feet into leopard-spotted slippers and yank my jacket from the coatrack. I jerk down the stairs, every inch the martyr, and find my daughter in the kitchen, pacing like a caged dog. She pauses mid-step and stares, her eyes alight with horror-like she's Janet Leigh and the shower curtain just opened. What?

"Mo-ther." She gives me an exasperated huff to show me she cannot believe how few brains-if any-I actually have. "Please tell me you're not going to wear that."

I look down at my outfit. A pair of SpongeBob SquarePants loungies that I slept in last night and a fiveyear- old faded blue long-john shirt my ex left when he moved out.

Okay, she might have a tiny point. But that teenage expression of utter disdain is just begging to be wiped off her face. I grin. "What's the problem?" Sometimes I just can't help myself.

Rolling her eyes, she huffs to the door. "Fine, but just drop me off in front of the school. No, at the side, okay?" "Fine." I sling my purse over my shoulder. The strap immediately starts to slide. I end up dangling it from the crook of my elbow. I hate that. I'm turning into my mother. Before long, I'll have blue hair and false teeth and be calling everyone "honey." It's okay for her. But I'm not ready for the association. People already tell me how much I look like my mom-like that's supposed to be a compliment. I'm so glad they think I could be a twin to a seventy-year-old.

No woman under forty, especially me, wants to believe she's going to look like her mother one day. But denial notwithstanding, every time I pass a mirror, I say hi to Mom.

Ari gives me another once-over (clueless to the fact that in twenty years she's me). I snatch the keys from the counter. She rolls her eyes again. This time at the slippers. But at the end of a great writing day, I'm way past caring what a fifteen-year-old considers acceptable attire. On me, anyway.

I do, however, care what she considers acceptable on her own body. And I think we've just hit an impasse. I'm looking at a good two inches of skin between the bottom of her shirt and the top of her cheerleading skirt. Mentally, I fast forward thirty minutes to when her arms (and consequently her shirt) will lift during a "Go, fight, team" cheer. Yeah, I'm thinking, no way, Josť.

I know she gets the picture, because her face goes red, and her eyes are way too wide. Deliberate innocence. Soooo not going to work.

I lift one eyebrow and dip my chin ever so slightly. "Did your shirt shrink?" Oh, that was clever. She scowls. "Don't give me a hard time, Mom. Please? I know belly shirts aren't exactly in the rulebook, but these are standard issue for home games now.We're dancing at halftime." Amazing how a kid's tone can go from "You're too stupid to live" to "I wuv you, Mommy" in a matter of seconds. I feel myself caving. In my mind's eye, I see her very first itty-bitty finger-paint handprint and I want to give in. Then my gaze sweeps her in another once-over. Okay, she did not have that body in preschool.

I fold my arms across my-ahem-ample chest, bracing for World War VI (III, IV, and V have come and gone since puberty hit). My daughter is not going to dress like the latest teenybopper pop diva. Not in my lifetime. "Hmm. Let's go back to the 'I-know-belly-shirts-aren't-exactly-in-the rulebook' part."

She can't exactly argue with that now, can she? I smile. But only on the inside. No use flaunting my rapier wit when she's on the losing end of the argument.

She's not smiling at all-not on the outside, and I'd bet not on the inside either. The girl has no sense of humor anymore. "Mother . . . if I don't wear the shirt, I can't dance tonight."

"Then I guess I might as well get back to my computer." I shrug and move like I'm headed to the stairs. Totally calling her bluff.

"I'm on the third row of the pyramid!" "Then they'd better let you dance fully clothed, or it's going to be a lopsided pyramid." I grin at the image. But again, she's not thinking it's funny.

"Fine, Mother," she bites out. "I'm going upstairs to change."

I nod, sending her a "good choice" look. She rolls her eyes again.

Oh, yeah. High five, me. I am way too cool to be pushing forty.

I'm liking the outcome of this little blip in the road, and it appears all will be smooth riding until Ari turns back around and gives me that look-the one every teenage girl begins to acquire around age thirteen and has down to a science by the time she graduates from high school. Only, my daughter has it down pat at the tender age of fifteen, and I can tell things are about to get ugly.

"I can't believe you're criticizing my cheerleading outfit when you're planning to go out in public like that."

See, the great thing about being a published writer is that I can stay home in my jammies all day if the muse is hot on my shoulder. Usually no one cares-unless it's six-thirty and I forgot to get dressed and my daughter is mortified to be seen with me. But the thing is, I am the mom and she isn't going to get away with talking to me like that.

I open my mouth to tell her so, but she cuts me off. "I'm sorry I was rude. I'm going to change." Score one for her. Can't help but grin at the clever way she avoided being grounded. And she did sort of apologize, although her sincerity is highly in question.

Besides, it's hard to think about holding a grudge when I'm staring at five slices of leftover pepperoni pizza sitting in the box from dinner. Ari was supposed to put those away. Hmm. My mood is starting to improve just looking at the grease spots on the box, and I'm not sure if I should yell at my daughter for disobeying a direct order or thank her for not doing it.

I look at the box. Look away. I'm dieting. I drum my fingers along the countertop, trying to ignore the little crispy edges of slightly overcooked pepperoni.

To divert my attention, I envision my scene with Blaine and Esmeralda. The raven-haired beauty waits breathlessly, heart pounding as Blaine moves in for a bite- A bite? Oh, brother. What, is Blaine a vampire now?

Pizza is the thorn in my side. Every excess inch of my side. Suddenly, I can smell pepperoni. And it smells so good. Walk away from the pizza, I tell myself in no uncertain terms.

I start to, but the power of the cheesy, tomatoey, crusty pie is too strong. I spring back like an extra-large rubber band.

I snatch a slice and bring it to my mouth, my eyes shifting about like one of those tattered, starving people in an apocalyptic B-movie. You know, the ones squatting next to a building eating the last rat on the face of the earth before anyone else can get it? That's me. Sad thing is, even that image doesn't make the pizza less appealing. I'm so weak. "All right, I changed. Let's go."

I jump, guilty as sin, at the sound of my daughter's voice, and drop the goods back into the box. Only one bite gone. Oh, sure, she decides to hurry for the first time in her life. Two more minutes and I would have scarfed that slice down plus another one.

Probably just as well. Who needs a bazillion calories anyway? "Okay, kiddo," I say, following her through the kitchen and out the garage door. "Sorry about the SpongeBob pants, but come on, you should read the great stuff I wrote today. Five thousand words of sheer magic."

"I'm happy for ya," she practically snarls. It's funny how I find the well-placed acerbic remark rather amusing and occasionally brilliant, coming from me. Coming from my sarcastically-inclined offspring, it just burns me up. Is that a double standard?

"Hey, watch yourself or forget the game. I'm trying to be civil here. And you're not at the top of my happy list tonight as it is."

"Sorry," she mutters in an un-sorry tone. Within minutes, we pull through the circular drive in front of Jefferson High School, amid a crowd of teenagers shouting and tossing cups of water on one another just outside the gym. A band member in full uniform jumps out of the way in time to avoid getting his tuba soaked.

Ari reaches with purpose for the handle. Her jerky movements clue me in to her displeasure. Somehow I've completely forgotten to drop her off at the side of the school as promised. I can tell she's seething at the injustice of being forced to step out of her mother's van in front of the building.

I shrug. "Oops.Well, at least you're not late for kickoff." She opens the door and slams it shut without a good-bye, "Thanks for the ride," anything. Resentment cranks inside me as I watch her sashay off toward the building where her half-naked cheerleader friends are packed together like canned fish.

Cool canned fish. There's something satisfying to me about my daughter being one of the cool kids. Rationally, I know that's just stupid, but I can't help but live vicariously through her. I was always in the nerd click. Fodder for cheerleader terrorism. And come on, who doesn't secretly wish to be one of the beautiful people? My Ari is a natural beauty and has a confidence about her that induces her peers to clamor about waiting for her to notice.

Only, at this moment, she's oblivious to her little entourage, because I have her full attention-and the full force of her glare. Apparently I haven't driven away quickly enough to suit her, because she sends me an exaggerated wave.

Sometimes it just burns me up how insignificant I become to my daughter once I've done her bidding. Tonight it really gets to me, especially since I left a perfectly yummy kiss scene and an equally yummy pizza to bring her to the game.

The injustice of it all hits me smack in the middle of my forehead like a suction arrow. In an impulsive moment, I roll down the passenger-side window. "Ari, honey," I call, louder than necessary and in a tone that's just a notch above my normal pitch. I have every intention of making her walk back to the minivan and kiss me good-bye in front of all these people. The little stinker. I remember when she cried every time I dropped her off at school. Okay, so she was five, but still. When did she stop loving me?

Quickly, she turns around and slinks back to the minivan, trying desperately not to be noticed. Only problem with that is the whole popularity thing. Everyone knows her, so when someone calls "Ari" like I just did, kids stare.

However, I'm regretting my rash decision to put her in her place. Because not only are they staring at her, now they're looking at me.My hair isn't brushed, and there's not a speck of makeup on my face. Instinctively, I check out my reflection in the rearview mirror. Big mistake! "Mo-ther," she hisses. "You're humiliating me."

Suddenly needing to get out of there quick, I take pity on us both. "You forgot to tell me what time to pick you up," I say, as a way of covering up the fact that I was about to purposely embarrass her and ended up embarrassing myself instead. My mother would call that poetic justice.

"I have my cell phone. I'll call you when the game's over." She walks away, leaving me to stare after her. Shoot. Why does she always get the last word?

I see her group of followers pointing at me and whispering among themselves. Okay, they're probably looking and admiring her, and most likely haven't even noticed me, but when you have the kind of self-esteem I have, laughing kids translate to "laughing at me" kids. That's the way I feel if anyone is cracking a joke anywhere in the vicinity, and I'm not in on it.

It's something I've dealt with since I was a kid. Full of myself one second, down on myself the next. I probably need therapy. I hear Dr. Phil has a diet book out now. Maybe I should read it and kill two birds with one stone. Get my head and my behind shrunk for one low price of $19.99.

I'm about to pull out of the drive, seriously considering making a detour to Wal-Mart's book aisle on the way home, when I see a woman walking toward me, waving and mouthing, "Stop." I'd love to pretend I don't see her, but eye contact has already happened. Besides, I recognize her as the mother of one of Ari's friends. Linda Myers. She and her husband are new to my church.

That's the thing about living in a small town. Acquaintanceships go beyond work, school, or church. Usually there are at least two common structured organizations in your life to connect you to someone. The sad thing is that Linda and I have daughters who are best friends and a church in common, and I have never taken the time to get to know her on a personal level.

As she approaches, I notice she's wearing a yellow-andblack GO YELLOWJACKETS T-shirt tucked into a pair of button-fly Levis. She looks how I wish I looked. I haven't tucked in a shirt on purpose in a good five years. She reaches the van and I realize she's even prettier than I remember from seeing her across the church.Auburn hair and enormous green eyes give her a romance-heroine beauty. And they say no one really looks like that.Wait until I tell my skeptical editor. Still, I'd rather eat dirt than have to talk to this woman and pretend I don't care if I'm wearing SpongeBob jammie bottoms.

A bright smile is splitting her beautifully made-up face and I wish I could crawl under the seat. Instead, I press the button and roll down the window.

"Hi," she says. "You're not staying for the first game of the season?"

I stare blankly. Shoot. I should have. "I'm uh . . . on deadline." I give her a you-know-how-it-is smile, although we both know she doesn't. For some reason, I really hope she won't think little of me for being a horrible mother and not supporting my cheerleader daughter like she supports hers.

"I understand," she says. "I'm so sorry to bother you." "It's okay." I continue to smile tightly, hoping this is the end of the conversation. No such luck.

She leans against my van and I start worrying that she's going to get a ton of dust down the front of her. When was the last time I had this thing at the car wash?

She pulls me from the question with her next sentence. "I hope you don't think this is inappropriate of me, but . . ."

Oh, brother. Here it comes. "I'm a member of Weight Watchers . . . Low Carbers . . . Weigh Down . . ." You name it, I've heard it.Well-meaning ladies who honestly feel that inviting me to a weight-loss class is just the thing. After all, I have such a pretty face.

My defenses are rising and I want to cut her off before she even has a chance to say anything. Instead, I take the less-than-truthful-but-necessary-for-my-reputation approach. "No, you're not bothering me at all."

Not so friendly as to invite conversation, but not so rude that she can spread the word about what a snob the published author is.

Instead of getting to the point, she clears her throat and looks toward the building. "I notice you didn't let her wear the crop top." She inclines her head toward the group of cheerleaders still milling around the doorway to the gym. I relish the approval in this virtual stranger's face and give a superior laugh at her observation. "Not in my lifetime."

She nods in agreement, and again I'm feeling an unusual sense of camaraderie with this stranger. "Trish threw a fit, but I told her either she could wear the old top or they could have a crooked pyramid."

I give a weak laugh. It's the best I can do. Funny how you think you're the only one with quick wit-your one claim to self-worth-only to find there's a Linda Myers in town who is not only beautiful but thinks up the exact same jokes. How can that be fair?

"Anyway," Trish's mom is saying, "I'm so glad I caught you. I've tried to call several times but can never seem to get an answer."

Not that I'd tell her this, but that's largely because I never answer my phone. As a matter of fact, it stays unplugged most of the time. Drives my mom perfectly nuts. But it's the only way I can write without being interrupted every fifteen minutes. People inevitably believe if I'm home, I'm available. That's the drawback to working at home.

I don't unplug the phone to be hateful; it's a matter of self-preservation. Gotta meet those deadlines or we'll be eating government cheese.

Still, this lady isn't one of my regular callers and I really don't have a good reason to hold a grudge against her for something other people do. Besides, she seems sort of sweet and genuine. So I smile for real. "I'm so sorry I missed your calls.What can I do for you?"

"It was nothing, really. I just . . . Mainly I wanted to thank you for your last book. Tobey's Choice."

Well, then . . . Maybe I should give her my cell phone number, because if we're going to talk about my books I can talk all night.

Only, she has tears streaming down her face. I feel this is more than an average fan gusher. I sense the Holy Spirit leading me to be still and listen.To get over myself for once. This is not all about me. Sufficiently chastised, I get a grip and cover the hand she has placed on the halfway-down window. "I'm so glad you enjoyed the book," I say, in order to encourage her to continue.

She gulps. "I-I could so relate to her. My husband did the same . . . Well, reading your book gave me the strength to confront him. God is healing our marriage and I want to thank you for listening to Him and writing what I needed to hear." Tears fill my eyes. I say a little prayer aloud right there in the circle drive of Jefferson High School, heedless of the watchers. God has performed a miracle.

Moments later I leave the school behind, all thoughts of Dr. Phil pushed firmly to somewhere in the back of my mind. Who needs that guy when God is in the office? I drive home on autopilot. Humbled. Thoughtful.

Feeling like an utter hypocrite.

Tobey's Choice. My book about forgiveness. My heroine's cheating husband didn't deserve a second chance. I wanted to kill him off-after Tobey did the right thing and forgave the weasel, of course. But my editor insisted the ending be rewritten so that their marriage was saved. No horrible death scene-and boy, did I have a good one. I was mad, but I gave in.

Now I'm glad I did.

Copyright © 2006 by Tracey Bateman