Carly Wheeler lives a charmed life. Her motheris a stylist for the soap opera Lovelock Falls, she lives in a nice house, and goes to an excellent private school. But when her mom is arrested and charged with embezzlement, everything starts to unravel. There are shocking stories about her mother's crimes in the local newspaper. Carly's friends start avoiding her. And her stepfather starts worrying about money. How can Carly put her life back together when it feels like she's missing all the pieces?
For the past three years my best friend, Annie, and I have had the coolest tradition on Teacher Organization Day.
I guess I should explain what Teacher Organization Day even is: It’s this random day at the end of September when classes are canceled and the teachers have a day to catch up on their work. I really don’t get the reason for it; honestly, I think it’s just an excuse for the school administration to have a three-day weekend. We go to a private school called Preston Day School. Tuition is pretty steep, which goes along with my stepfather’s theory that the more you pay for a school, the more vacation days you get. He may be right about that— my stepsister and stepbrother go to public school, and they never have days off for things like Teacher Organization Day. Also, their winter and spring breaks are shorter, and their school gets out two weeks after ours does in June. But whatever the reason, I’m not going to complain about it. All that matters to me is that we have that Monday off.
So this is our tradition: My mom takes Annie and me to work with her. We’ve been doing it ever since the fourth grade.
I know it doesn’t sound like much of a tradition. Actually, it probably sounds lame to hang out at the place where your mother works, and maybe that’s how it would be if you were going to your mother’s office. But my mom has a job where it’s cool to go for the day—in fact she has the coolest job of all the parents I know. She works on the set of the soap opera Lovelock Falls.
In case you haven’t heard of it, Lovelock Falls is a made-up town, and the show is about all the people who live there. It’s filmed in Manhattan, which is about an hour away from where we live. When we go, the crew totally treats us like we’re celebrities ourselves. We get to go to the hair and makeup room and get made up just like the actors do, and then we watch the filming and the set changes. In between scenes the real actors come up and talk to us, and we get our pictures taken with everyone. They also have this area called Craft Services, where there’s so much food you can’t even believe it. Basically, any kind of dish you can imagine is there—including tons of desserts. I sort of wonder how all the actresses on the show stay so super thin, since they can eat at Craft Services all day long. But I think they have personal trainers.
Mom is a stylist on Lovelock Falls, and she handles the wardrobe for six of the women on the show, including the star, Ally Jaron. Ally plays Violet van Ryan. So far she’s been almost murdered twice, been in a coma, and had four different weddings—two of them to the same guy. His character, Kyle Shepherd, has amnesia right now, so he doesn’t even remember that she left him for the second time, right after she found out that he was a compulsive gambler and had gambled away most of her fortune. Violet also has ten-year-old twins, and one of them just came back from the dead. And she has a twin sister herself, but Violet’s twin sister, Ivy, is evil, and Ivy got shipped off to an insane asylum last year.
Of course, Ally isn’t anything like that in real life. Mom says the cast and crew of Lovelock Falls are like family, and she knows them all really well. I know Ally too, because Mom has worked with her for so long. Her house isn’t too far from where my family lives, and I’ve visited her with Mom. When I had appendicitis last year, Ally sent me a care package filled with DVDs and magazines. It’s not really intimidating to be around her, because she’s so completely down-to-earth. She has two daughters, Madison and Nicole, who are super cute. They look so much like Ally that it’s crazy—blondish hair and really wide blue-green eyes. They remind me of dolls. I’ve babysat for them a couple of times, and even though I don’t think of Ally as a star, I have to admit that it was cool to see the inside of her house— maybe not as cool as getting to see where a movie star like Brody Hudson lives, but still. The table next to the couch in the living room has a bunch of framed pictures on it—pictures of Ally and her friends, who just happen to be famous themselves. And she has a huge walk-in closet right off her bedroom. There are all these photos on the walls of her dressed up in spectacular designer gowns.
Mom says Ally is a really easy person to dress because she has a great sense of style and everything looks good on her. In the scene she was filming that day, she was wearing a flowing dress that stopped just below her knees. It had a halter top—the halter part was crocheted, and then the bottom of the dress was sort of silky. It was a bunch of different colors that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go well together, but somehow they just did. I think the truth is that my mom is really good at her job—she’s just so stylish herself. She’s personable, and she knows how to make people feel really good about themselves so they always like what they’re wearing. Mom has even been nominated for a bunch of different awards for dressing the actresses so well. We have the nomination certificates framed in our den.
The funniest thing about the wardrobe on Lovelock Falls is that all the actors are always dressed up in really fancy clothes, no matter where the scene takes place, as if at any moment they might need to dash off to a black-tie event. That day Violet van Ryan was at the hospital to visit her ex-husband—the one with amnesia. But she looked like she was ready to be a guest at a wedding. Annie and I were in directors’ chairs just to the side of the set, so we had a good view. One of the crew gave us headsets so we could listen to the dialogue.
“Well, Dr. Sparling, that is just unacceptable,” Ally-as-Violet said. “I expect you to have a different answer when I come back tomorrow, or else I am pulling the foundation’s funding of the new wing, and in case you don’t know what that will mean, I will tell you: It will be a disaster of epic proportions. It will change all— all the things you are.” She turned around quickly and stormed off. Her dress swayed back and forth, the colors blending together just right. She looked glamorous and intense all at once.
“Cut!” the director said.
The scene was over, so Ally came over to us. “Hey, Carly,” she said, hugging me hello.
“Hi,” I said. “Do you remember Annie? She comes with me every year.”
“Sure,” she said. “Hi, Annie.”
Ally extended her hand for Annie to shake. I happen to know that Ally doesn’t like her hands. She thinks the veins in them make her look old. She taught me this trick that if you hold your hands so your fingers are pointed upward, you can’t see the veins as well, and it makes your hands look younger. Annie shook Ally’s hand. I could tell she was jealous that Ally had hugged me and not her. I know it’s mean, but it made me sort of glad. At school Annie is definitely more popular than I am. She has this personality that just makes her stand out and sparkle. I’m lucky to be her best friend, but all the same it’s nice to feel like the important one sometimes.
“How do you think the scene went?” Ally asked.
“It was great,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Ally asked. “I screwed up a couple of the lines and I had to improvise.” She seemed genuinely worried, even though she’s been playing Violet van Ryan for years and years. She’s really good at it, too. I think she’s probably the best actress on Lovelock Falls.
“It sounded completely natural,” Annie said. “It was just how I would have done the scene.” Annie is actually in drama club at school, and every time we visit the set, she hopes she’ll be discovered—like the director will decide that he really needs a twelve-year-old in a certain scene, and that Annie has the perfect look. She says a lot of really famous people got their start on the soaps. Whenever we talk about what we want to be when we grow up, Annie says she should be an actress and I should be a writer. Her plan is that I will be a writer on a soap opera, since I’m good at making up stories and I know a lot about the soaps, and I’ll write her a really great part.
“Seriously,” I told Ally, “you totally nailed it.”
Ally ruffled my hair. “Thanks, girls,” she said. “I’ve got to run—I have to make an appearance at a benefit downtown. I can’t even remember if it’s for the museum or the library. It’s the third night in a row I’ve had one of these things. I promised the girls I’d be home in time to put them to bed, but I don’t know if I’ll really make it. You know, it’s really hard to be a good mother. I look at how Leigh is with you, Carly. I just hope in the end I’m the same kind of mother she is.”
I love when Ally talks to me like I’m her friend. “You’re a good mother too,” I said.
“My guru says I need to work on simplifying my life,” Ally said.
Here’s something else about Ally: You can’t really know her without hearing what her guru says. It’s the one sort of weird thing about her. Her guru is this guy from India who teaches her yoga and meditation. He says all sorts of things, like life is full of signs—you just need to watch for them—and there’s no such thing as a mistake. I’m not sure I believe that last one; just last week I messed up on my math quiz even when I really knew the answer, and I certainly didn’t do it on purpose. “Madison and Nicole are worried that if I simplify too much, they’ll end up with fewer toys,” she continued.
I smiled, because the girls have so many toys. It’s practically a toy store at Ally’s house. “Tell them I say hi,” I said.
“I will,” Ally said. “Come visit us soon—actually, maybe the weekend after next your mom can bring you by. I have a lunch thing, and I know the girls would rather play with you than tag along with their old mom.”
“That sounds good,” I said.
After Ally left, Annie and I headed back to my mom’s office. Mom calls it her office, but really it’s just a cluttered room that she shares with a few of the other stylists. There are racks of clothing everywhere, and labels taped to the hangers so they know who is supposed to wear which outfit in what scene. A couple of times I’ve seen actresses walking around Mom’s office without clothes on. They don’t seem to care who sees them, but I would definitely be more self-conscious. I’m kind of a late bloomer. I guess it’s obvious even when I have clothes on that I’m totally flat-chested, but it’s not like I ever want anyone to see it up close.
I pushed open the door to Mom’s office. There was a rack of dresses right in front of the door—I couldn’t see Mom through them, but I could hear her talking to Vivette. Vivette is the head stylist, so she’s sort of Mom’s boss, but she doesn’t act like a boss at all. She and Mom are really good friends. Vivette and her husband, Ed, always come to our house for Thanksgiving. She makes a dish called three-cheese potatoes that is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. It’s why I really like Thanksgiving, even though the next day Mom and I always bring leftovers to my grandmother. She’s in a nursing home. Mom actually visits Grandma every week, but she only makes me go with her once a month or so, and on special occasions, like Thanksgiving. It’s really sad there. Once, Mom told me she hoped I would visit her often if she was ever in a home like that, and I got so upset because I didn’t want to have to think about it: seeing Mom confused, sick, shriveled. It’s true what they say about old people shrinking, because Grandma seems smaller every time I see her. She says the strangest things, too, which freaks me out sometimes.
“Leigh, I swear, don’t worry about a thing,” Vivette was saying. “I shouldn’t have even said anything to you.”
“No,” Mom said. “This has gone on too long. Jonathan has no idea.”
“You know this isn’t the place to talk about this,” Vivette said.
“You’re the one who brought it up,” Mom said. She sounded angry. Annie looked at me, but I just shrugged. We pushed our way through the rack of dresses. Mom had her hand pressed to her forehead. It was Vivette who noticed us first. “Hiya, Carly,” she said. “Hi, Annie.”
We said hi back, and right then Mom’s whole face changed. She lowered her hand from her head and grinned. “Come on in, girls,” she said, beckoning us. “I’m just about done for the day.”
“Did you have fun today?” Vivette asked. She put her arm around my shoulder. When she does that—puts her arm around me, or gives me a hug—I feel like I’m being swallowed up. Vivette is really tall and broad. It’s not that she’s fat; actually, she’s not fat at all, just muscular. Her shoulders are wide, like she’s wearing shoulder pads, and she has thick wrists and ankles. My mom says Vivette is big-boned. I’m on the small side, like my mom. I’ve always been one of the shortest kids in my grade. Everyone says I have a gymnast’s body, which is kind of funny just because I’m so completely inflexible. Anyway, I always feel like a really little kid when I stand next to Vivette.
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “I love it here.”
“Good, I’m glad,” she said. “Listen, I have to get going. It was great to see you, girls …and Leigh, everything is under control.” She kissed us all good-bye, and walked through the rack of clothes and out the door.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“What you and Vivette were talking about?”
“Nothing,” Mom said. She bent down to her desk and scribbled something on a piece of paper: Violet in hotel dream sequence. Then she taped it up onto a hanger behind her—a crimson-red dress was hanging from it. It had an incredibly low neckline. Sometimes they have to put body tape on the dresses so they stay in place and the actresses don’t accidentally flash the crew while they’re filming. Mom turned back to me. “It was absolutely nothing. Are you two ready to roll?”
“Sure,” I said.
Mom pulled our coats out of the closet. “God, I can’t believe the three-day weekend is almost officially over,” Annie said. “I really don’t want to go to school tomorrow. Most of it’s like a waste of time anyway. It’s not like I plan to be a historian or a scientist or anything like that, so why do I have to learn about those things?”
“I suppose you never know when they will come in handy,” Mom said. “You could sound very intellectual at a dinner party.”
“But you don’t need them here, right, Leigh?” Annie asked. My friends all call Mom by her first name.
“I haven’t yet,” Mom said.
“And this is really what I want to do,” Annie said. “I want to be an actress.”
“Well, whatever you grow up to be, I had to learn about history and science, and your parents had to learn about history and science—so maybe we just want you guys to suffer like we did,” Mom said. It was a Mom kind of thing to say—when people are upset, she tries to be funny and lighten the mood. “Come on, let’s get out of here and grab some dinner.”
We went to a Mexican restaurant not too far from the set, and afterward we got Mom’s car out of the garage and headed back up to Westchester.
Annie and I both live in Westchester County, just in different towns. Annie lives in Scarsdale, and I live in New Rochelle. I don’t have any friends from Preston who live near me. There’s just Amelia, who lives across the street, but she goes to public school. When we were little, our mothers were really close. They’re not as friendly as they used to be, since Mom’s best friend is Vivette. Still, I like Amelia, and being friends with her is convenient. We can hang out without needing anyone to drive us anywhere. (Although Annie’s parents have a driver, so generally it’s not a problem. She can get dropped off at my house whenever she wants.)
In the car on the way home Annie and I sat in the backseat, like Mom was our chauffeur. Annie was talking about her parents, who are way different from mine. They’re really stiff, and sort of unapproachable. In fact their whole house is stiff and unapproachable. They actually have rooms in it that we’re not even allowed to go into, because the furniture is so special and expensive. But sometimes, when Annie’s parents are out and Annie’s busy in another room, I go into one of the forbidden rooms and look around. I run my fingers along the silk on the couch, and feel the wood on the antique dressers.
“My dad said he’ll be late all week, so I know my mom will be in one of her annoying moods,” Annie said.
I knew “annoying” wasn’t really the right word for how Annie’s mom would be. It was just code for how she’d be drinking. I’ve seen Annie’s mother get drunk before—more than once. It usually happens when her dad is working late. Her mom sits at the dining room table with a bottle of wine and talks until her words are slurred.
Annie doesn’t really talk about it. She’s just got this weird thing with her mom: Sometimes she loves her and tries to be like her, glamorous and stuff, and sometimes she just hates her—mostly when she’s drinking. I guess she can’t really go up to her mom and say, “I don’t think you should drink anymore.” And she can’t talk to her dad about it either. First of all he’s not home that much, and second of all he’s really intense and scary.
I just know, even though she doesn’t say it, that it’s easier for Annie when she stays at our house. Mom knows it too. “You can always stay with us if you want to,” Mom told her.
“I wish I could,” Annie said. “But my mom would never let me sleep over on a school night. She’s got all these rules. It’s so dumb.”
I waited for Mom to say something to make Annie feel better, but all of a sudden there was a whooping sound and flashing lights behind us. Mom cursed under her breath and turned the knob on the car stereo. I hadn’t even realized the music was on until then, when there was just silence.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “I don’t think I did anything wrong.” There was something about the way her voice wavered that made me scared. We pulled to the side of the road. Mom pressed the button to roll down her window.
The officer leaned into the car. “Ma’am, are you aware you ran a stop sign at the bottom of the hill?”
“No, officer,” Mom said. “I didn’t see it.”
“Can I have your license and registration please?”
“Of course, officer,” Mom said. I watched from the backseat as she reached for her bag. She pulled her license out of her wallet. “I’m really sorry, officer. This is my license. The registration is the glove compartment—one sec.” She leaned over, popped open the glove compartment, and handed the registration over to him.
“Thank you,” the officer said.
“I just can’t believe I did that. I was in the middle of a very intense conversation with these two—which is a terrible excuse. I was trying to be a role model, but I guess I’m not setting a good example for them after all. Girls, do as I say, not as I do.”
The officer smiled. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Mrs. Wheeler,” he said. “I’ll tell you what—I’ll let you go with a warning this time. Just watch the signs and drive carefully, all right?”
“Of course, officer,” Mom said. “Thank you so much.” We pulled away slowly. Mom took a deep breath and let it out slowly, like she was still nervous about the whole thing.
“That cop car is always there,” Annie said. “He’s always trying to catch people. Our driver got a ticket from him a few weeks ago. My mom says the cops probably give out more tickets at the end of the month, just so they can meet their quotas.”
“But it’s the twenty-seventh of the month now,” I said.
“He must have been in a good mood,” Mom said.
“Maybe,” I said. “I think there’s just something kind of magical about you,” I said.
“Thanks, honey,” she said. She smiled and sounded like herself again. “That’s why your faux pa married me.”
Courtney Sheinmel is the author of All the Things You Are, Sincerely, Positively, and My So-Called Family. She graduated with honors from Barnard College, part of Columbia University, and attended Fordham University School of Law. Courtney lives, works, and writes in New York City. Visit her at www.courtneysheinmel.com.