Dirty Rowdy Thing (Wild Seasons #2)(3) by Christina Lauren

“What’s going on?” I ask slowly.

Mom closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and then looks right at us, saying, “I have breast cancer.”

After these four words, the hundreds that follow sound fuzzy and shapeless. But I understand enough to know that Mom has a tumor that is roughly three centimeters in her breast, and that cancerous cells were found in several lymph nodes. Dad found the mass while they were in the shower one morning—I’m too relieved he found it to be weirded out by this information—and she didn’t want to tell us anything until she knew more. She’s opted for a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, and they’ve scheduled surgery for Monday . . . three days from now.

It’s all somehow moving too fast, and, for a fixer like me, not fast enough. I can rattle off questions as if I’m reading from a book: Have you gotten a second opinion on the pathology? What is the recovery time for the surgery? How soon after can you start chemo? What medications will they give you? But I’m too stunned to know if my rapid-fire questions are an appropriate reaction at all.

When Dad mentioned he found the lump, Bellamy burst out laughing and then immediately broke down into hysterical sobs. Mom sounded like an automaton for the first time in her entire life as she detailed what the doctor had told her. Dad remained uncharacteristically mute.

So this is what I’m saying: What is an appropriate reaction when the center of your world finds out she’s mortal?

Once she’s finished telling us everything she knows—and once she’s promised us that she feels strong, and fine just fine—she tells us she wants to go lie down and be alone for a little while. But I can hardly breathe, and from the look on my father’s face, he’s faring much, much worse.

Bellamy and I sit and watch Clue with the volume practically on mute. She’s curled in my lap, and Dad has disappeared down the hall to their bedroom. On my phone’s browser, I read every website I can find on stage-three breast cancer, and with every new piece of information I mentally update the odds of my mother’s survival. The credits are rolling and then the screen goes blank before I realize the movie is over.

BUT THERE’S NOTHING I can do now. Mom doesn’t want us to do anything; she doesn’t want me taking care of her. She wants us to “live our lives” and “not let this monopolize our thoughts.”

Does she not know Dad and me at all?

Only a few hours after she tells us, this cancer has become a thing, a living, breathing entity that takes up just as much space in our house as any of us do. It’s all I can think about, all I see when I look at her. And so I have no idea what to do with myself.

“I thought there was a party at Lola’s new place tonight,” Mom says, and I snap back to the conversation. She looks perfectly normal, if not a little tired, flipping a grilled cheese and glancing at me over her shoulder. You know, making us dinner as if it’s a normal Friday night, nothing different. I can tell all three of us are watching her cook and suppressing our need to suggest she go sit down, relax, let us bring her something to eat.

She would kill us.

“There is . . .” I hedge and steal a few shreds of cheese from her bowl. “But I’m staying here.”

“No, you’re not.” Mom turns and gives me her best don’t-argue-with-me face. “Oliver’s store opens tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“You’re going out, and you’re staying at your place tonight,” Dad insists. “I’m taking Mom to a movie and then I’m bringing her home and”—he does a slick little dance move behind her—“you won’t want to be home for what comes next.”

Oh God. I press my hands over my ears as Bellamy ducks and pretends to hide under the breakfast bar.

“You win,” I tell him, trying to keep my tone light and shove down the panic I feel welling up inside of me. I don’t want to be away from my mom. “But tomorrow we’re doing something with all four of us.”

Dad nods and smiles bravely at me.

I’ve never seen him look so shaken.

IT’S ACTUALLY GOOD to get out, if I’m being honest. The worst thing we could do for Mom is sit around and watch every move she makes with our worried, woeful expressions. Dad assured me my role will come in the next few weeks and months. I can work with that. Bellamy is sweet, but she’s only eighteen and also oddly incapable. Every small errand stresses her out. It makes her good for the role of Stay Positive! I’m the daughter who gets shit done. I’ll be the daughter who drives Mom to appointments, asks too many questions, takes care of her when Dad needs to work, and will probably drive her crazy.

But right now, I feel awful.

And if there is anyone I want to see other than my family tonight, it’s my girls.

Lola’s new apartment is a huge step up from the dorms. I expected her to move in with me when we graduated, but she wanted to be downtown, and every time I visit I can’t really blame her. It’s situated just north of the Gaslamp Quarter in a new, giant-windowed high-rise with wide-open rooms, a view of the harbor, and a location only blocks away from the Donut Bar. Lucky woman.

“Harlowwwww!” My name is shouted across the large living room and quickly I’m surrounded by four arms. Two are Lola’s, and two belong to London, Lola’s new roommate and the most adorable all-American girl you can imagine: sandy blond hair, freckles, dimples and a constant smile. She cools it down perfectly with her hot nerd girl glasses and wild clothes. Tonight, for example, I see she’s wearing a blue Tardis T-shirt, a polka-dot green and yellow skirt, and black-and-white–striped kneesocks. With Lola’s retro black dress and sleek Bettie Page thing going on, they make the rest of us look tragically unhip.

“Hi Lola-London,” I say, pressing my face into Lola’s neck. I needed this.

Lola’s voice is muffled against my hair. “That sounds like a stripper name.”

London laughs, extracting herself from the tangle. “Or the name of a drink?”

“One Lola-London on the rocks,” I say.

“Well,” London says, pointing to the cooler on the kitchen floor. “We can try inventing it tonight. I swear I bought everything. Mixers and booze and beer and nuts and—” She closes her eyes, raises her right hand in a rocker salute, and belts out, “Fritos!”

She turns running off to answer the door and I give Lola my nod of approval. “I like that girl.”

“Someone told me there is a fiesta in this casa!”

I turn to the sound of Ansel’s deep, accented voice, and every sound in the apartment dips for a beat before applause and laughter break out. He’s wearing a sombrero filled with tortilla chips. Because he’s an adorable idiot.

Mia breaks away from him, making a beeline to me, and wraps her arms around my shoulders. “You okay?”

I called Lola and Mia earlier, gave them both the truncated update, and they know me well enough to anticipate the magnitude of my panic.

I blink away from the delightful spectacle of Ansel doing some weird little bullfighter dance. “Eh. You know.”

She pulls back and studies my face before deciding, accurately, that I’m here for distraction and not to discuss my mom. We all turn to watch Ansel as he offers sombrero chips to someone. Seriously, his inner child is definitely alive and kicking.

I draw a circle in the air around my head. “What is with the—”

“No idea.” Mia cuts me off. “He and Finn went out for beers earlier and back he comes with it. He hasn’t taken it off in hours, but has refilled it three times. Stand back ladies”—she bends, digging a beer out of the cooler—“he’s all mine.”

And at the mention of his name, I catch sight of Finn across the room. He must have come in with them. My stomach does an annoying clench-warm-flip move when he laughs over something Ansel says and lifts his arm to adjust his baseball hat. His bicep flexes and my stomach ignites. I chug half my beer to make the feeling go away, imagining the hiss and steam as the metaphorical flames are put out.

“I didn’t know Finn was coming tonight.” But what was I thinking? That they would leave him at home alone? Finn is just one more complication my already frazzled brain can’t quite handle right now.

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