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Emergency Contact
Author: Mary H.K. Choi

PENNY.

“Tell me something, Penny . . .”

Penny knew that whatever Madison Chandler was going to say, she wasn’t going to enjoy it. Madison Chandler leaned in close, mouth smiling, beady eyes narrowed. Penny held her breath.

“Why is your mom such a slut?”

The taller of the two girls glared pointedly at Penny’s mom, who was chatting with Madison’s father a few feet away.

Blood pounded in Penny’s ears.

Possible reactions to Madison Chandler calling your mom a slut:

1. Punch her in the face.

2. Punch her disgusto, knuckle-dragging, pervert father in the face.

3. Do nothing. Rage-cry later in the privacy of your bedroom while listening to The Smiths. You are a dignified pacifist. Namaste.

4. Unleash the pyrokinetic abilities bequeathed to you upon birth, scorching the shopping mall with the fire of a trillion suns.

Penny scanned her opponent’s green-flecked blue eyes. Why was this happening? And at the Apple Store no less? This was a safe space. A haven. Penny was almost out of this stifling town for good. She was so close.

“I asked you a question.” Madison sucked her teeth. She had those clear braces that fooled no one.

Punching her would be therapeutic.

“Hello? Is anyone in there?”

So therapeutic.

Christ, who was Penny kidding? It was option three. It was always option three. At this stage of the game there was no need to be a hero. Especially at 5'1", with a “cute” right hook and reaction times that were sluggish at best.

Whatever. In four days Penny would be off to college and the opinions of these micro-regionally famous people would no longer matter.

Just as Madison drew back, to glare at her from a different, arguably more menacing angle, Penny’s assigned Apple Genius materialized with her brand-new phone.

Deus ex-MacStore dude.

Penny clutched the smooth box. It gleamed with promise and felt expensively heavy in her hands. She glanced over by the laptops where “Maddy’s Daddy,” as he’d introduced himself (barf), was doing a looming-leering thing at her mom, Celeste. Penny sighed. She’d been campaigning for a new phone since Christmas, and this was not at all going down how she’d planned. Penny had envisioned more fanfare. At least some help picking out a case.

“Seriously, what’s with your mom’s geisha whore outfit?”

Okay, Madison Chandler may have gotten a Chanel caviar purse at fourteen (it was a hand-me-down) and a Jeep Wrangler at sixteen, but wow, there were sandwiches smarter than this girl.

First off, geishas weren’t prostitutes. Common mistake. Typically made by the willfully ignorant and intellectually incurious. Some geishas beguiled their clients with dance and artful conversation like in Memoirs of a Geisha, a novel Penny adored until she discovered some rando white guy had written it. Second, as anyone with even the most cursory observational skills can tell you, the kimono offers exemplary coverage. It was burka-adjacent or perhaps chador-ish, since kimonos didn’t have the hair and face covering bit.

Still, Penny wished, not for the first time, that her mom would stop wearing crop tops. Especially with leggings. It was positively gynecological. Penny, of course, was dressed in her customary shapeless black garb that was appropriate both day and night for being ignored by everyone.

“We’re Korean,” whispered Penny. Madison’s lip twitched in confusion, as if she’d been informed that Africa wasn’t a country. “Geishas are Japanese,” she finished. If you’re going to be racist you should try to be less ignorant, although maybe that was a contradiction. . . .

Mr. Chandler roared with laughter at something Celeste said, who, for the record, was hot but not that funny.

“Daddy,” whined Madison, making her way toward him.

Daddy? Yuck.

Penny bet they were the type of family that mouth kissed. Penny walked over too.

“If you want, you can come by my office and I can take a look at your portfolio,” continued Mr. Chandler. He was at least six foot five and Penny could see straight up to his nose hair.

“As I tell all my clients, it’s the early bird who gets the retirement worm. Especially with an empty nest.” He nodded at Penny.

“Dang it,” he said, patting his pockets with a practiced air. “I don’t have a card, but if you want to . . .” Mr. Chandler held his phone out and mimed typing into it with a toothy grin.

Penny shut it down.

“Mom.” Penny grabbed her by the wrist. “We have to go.”

• • •

Everything about the way Penny’s mom interacted with Mr. Chandler with his gleaming wedding ring and his hot-pink polo shirt infuriated her. It was the same old tale with Celeste and guys. You’d think she’d give it a rest and pay some attention to her only daughter the week before she left for college, but no, she was too busy flapping her lash extensions to some fake-tanned creep.

In the car, Celeste rearranged her boobs in her gray striped top and latched her seat belt. Having a MILF for a mom was garbage.

Celeste pulled out of the parking lot as the uneasy silence thickened.

On the highway, the Japanese cat mounted on her mother’s dashboard rattled. Penny stared at it. It was the size of a dinner roll, with a detached, spring-loaded head and blank cartoon eyes. This one, a recent addition, had usurped plastic Hello Kitty when Kitty’s features got bleached off by the sun. Celeste insisted on accessorizing everything. It was pathological. It reminded Penny of the rich bitches in the “Super Six,” Maddy and Rachel Dumas and Allie Reed and the three other glossy-haired sadists who wore a ton of rings and bracelets and had a new, sparkly phone case every week. You could hear them walking down the hall since the jangling crap attached to their book bags made such a racket. Thing is, if Celeste had gone to Ranier High, she probably would have been friends with them.

Penny longed for a crew. She was on “Oh, hey” status with a bunch of kids, but her closest school friend, Angie Salazar, transferred to Sojourner Truth High the summer before junior year, leaving Penny socially unmoored. If there were a subbasement level with a trapdoor below utter invisibility, Penny would have found a way to fall to it. Her social standing was nonexistent.

The cat continued to rattle. If it carried on in this way, it would be toast before they hit the freeway. It was trinket Darwinism. A fragile animal had no business being mounted in a fast-moving vehicle. Certainly not a fast-moving vehicle commandeered by her mother, who had no right to commandeer anything in the whole wide . . .

“Why do you do that?” Penny exploded. She wanted to punch a hole in the window and fling the cat out. Possibly hurl herself after it. Today was meant to be different. Penny’d let herself get excited about it for weeks. Her mom had taken the afternoon off, and it hurt Penny’s feelings that Celeste would ditch her as soon as she saw the Chandlers. Not that Penny would admit what was really bothering her. Pathetic outcasts had standards too.

“What?” Celeste rolled her eyes. The teen-like gesture coming from her mom set her off even more. Penny wanted to shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.

“Why do you flirt with everyone all the time?” Celeste was the mom equivalent of a feather boa. Or human glitter. “It’s getting old, you know.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Oh, you know exactly who . . .”

“Matt Chandler?”

“Yeah, gross, nasty ‘Maddy’s Daddy,’ who, incidentally, is married!”

“I know he’s married.” Celeste huffed. “Who was flirting? I was being polite, which, by the way, wouldn’t kill you. With your eye-rolling and scowls. Do you know how embarrassing . . . ?”

“Embarrassing? Me? Embarrassing you?” Penny balked. “That’s rich.” Penny crossed her arms prissily. “Mom, he was a creep and you’re there oozing your smiley, ridiculous . . .”

The car cat clattered as if nodding.

“How is he a creep? Because he wanted to give me investment advice?”

Penny couldn’t believe how dense her mother could be. It was clear to everyone that “Matt” wanted to give her a lot more than investment advice. Christ, even Madison knew what was up.

“How is it possible that you’re this stupid?”

Celeste’s mouth opened then shut. A pained expression flashed across her face. Even the curls on her head appeared to deflate.

Penny had never said anything as explicitly, deliberately mean to her mom before. She felt bad about it as soon as it flew out of her mouth, and while her mother wasn’t dumb, she was frequently mistaken for being, well, a little airheaded. Celeste ran regional operations for a multinational events-planning agency, spoke in hashtags, and was frequently dressed as if attending a boy-band concert. That was her way.

Penny was constantly running defense for her. The neighborhood men circled Celeste like sharks, conveniently underfoot to help with high supermarket shelves or offer unsolicited mansplainage on any number of topics. The way they lingered by Celeste’s car, eyes glittering like seeds, as if waiting for something, sketched Penny out. It didn’t help that Celeste was invariably welcoming.

Just one example: Last Valentine’s Day, Mr. Hemphill, their ancient mailman, presented Celeste with a tiny box of drugstore chocolates. It was the size of a mouse coffin, with four oxidized bonbons inside, and he kept mentioning the Vietnam War as though they had something in common. It was clear that he wanted to wear their skin and as far as Penny was concerned, this was the last guy you wanted knowing where you lived. Celeste wouldn’t hear of it.

Penny gazed out the window. Fighting with her mother had become routine. But now that Penny was leaving, Celeste had to get better at navigating the world. Steering clear of unrepentant scumbags was a start. Penny was exhausted. Of worrying about Celeste. Of resenting her. The flitting fast-food restaurants and gas stations blurred in her vision. She blotted the hot stray tears with a sleeve so her mom wouldn’t see.

• • •

Later that day Penny’s boyfriend came by. Not that Penny ever publicly referred to Mark as her “boyfriend.” He functioned more as a stopgap for complete isolation when Angie moved away, which was a totally awful way to think about it. Especially since empirically Mark was out of her league. At least physically. Which wasn’t everything, except in high school maybe it was. Most of the time Penny couldn’t believe they were dating. When Mark first showed interest, Penny thought he was defective or else messing with her, and when he didn’t seem to be doing that, her suspicion only grew. Penny was nothing if not aware of what she looked like and what she looked like was exactly the same as she did when she was in first grade. Smallish eyes with a snub nose and humongous lips that her mother promised she’d grow into but she never did. She and Mark looked confusing together. It didn’t help that Penny had learned that relationships often seemed to mean the opposite of what you called them. You could have over a hundred “friends” on social media and still have nobody to talk to. Just as Angie (that Brutus) had dubbed Penny her best friend until she ghosted completely. And while Mark referred to Penny as “bae,” which just made her deeply uncomfortable because: gross, he also described pizza as not only “bae” but “bae AF.” Which, yeah, obviously, but that was the problem. They both liked pizza way more than their person.

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