You know your life is never going to be the same when your mom pulls a gun at the shopping mall. It started out as just another boring Saturday in August. Mom was tired of me moping around the house, so she dragged me out to spend the day shopping in the air-conditioned mall. About half of Columbus, Ohio, had the same idea.
We pushed through the crowds gathered around the Cinnabon and I paused to inhale, but Mom tugged me away from the sweet, cinnamony goodness.
“Let’s get some school shopping done,” she suggested, pointing at one of the anchor stores. “I know we have a few more weeks, but you need some new clothes.”
I smoothed the front of my faded t-shirt and frowned. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”
Mom shook her head and grabbed my sleeve. “Lexie, you look like you’re homeless. Look at the fraying at the hem. I’m going to get picked up for neglect.”
“Moooom.” I brushed my bangs out of my eyes and gave her my puppy dog expression. I hated shopping with a fiery passion.
She slung an arm around my shoulder. “Fine,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “But when they haul me away, it’s on your head.”
“Ha ha. You’re so funny.” I let her lead me to the store anyway. If I was going to have to shop, at least Mom had pretty good taste. Even better, she usually paid for everything.
She headed for a table full of pastel-colored t-shirts, and I wrinkled my nose. “Nothing yellow. I hate yellow.”
“I know. How about this purple one? It would look so pretty with your dark hair.”
I sighed and let her hold it against my chest. She chewed her lip and studied me for a moment before her gaze slid past me deeper into the store.
She stiffened, her hands turning into claws that dug into my shoulders.
“What?” I whipped around to look behind me.
Mom dropped the shirt on the table and shook her head. She’d gone pale but pasted a smile to her face. “Nothing. I just don’t think purple is your color.” She peered past me again and clutched her purse closer to her side. “You know what? I’m not feeling so well. I think we should head home.”
I frowned at her. “Home? Seriously? You dragged me all the way to the mall just to turn around and go home? I should at least get a smoothie out of it or something.”
Her right hand slid into her purse and stayed there, like she was searching for something, but she kept her eyes trained on the back of the store. “I’m not dealing with your smart mouth right now, Lexie. Let’s go.”
She moved to grab my arm, but I jerked out of her grasp. “What is going on? Why are you being so weird?”
Her eyes darted around the store one last time before she turned to me. “Nothing. We just need to move.” Slowly, she slid her hand out of her purse and slipped it into her pocket.
I froze in place, gasping at the shiny, black gun in her grip. Blood roared in my ears. “What the hell is that? Is that real?”
“I’m sure you’ve seen a gun before. It’s for protection.” Mom pulled me from the store.
“Protection from what?” My voice threatened to erupt in a shriek, and I swallowed back my fear. Oh my god. Had she gone crazy?
Something that felt like an electric shock zapped inside my brain, and the world spun. I clutched Mom’s arm as my mind lurched and sputtered. A strange buzzing sound filled my ears until it blocked out the babble of the mall. My gaze focused in on the small details of the gun she tried to hide behind her purse — the curve of the handle, the faint etching on the barrel. Thoughts reeled through my head, and suddenly, I recognized the gun was a .38-caliber, snubnosed revolver by Smith & Wesson.
Even though I knew absolutely nothing about guns. Even though I’d only ever seen a gun on TV.
“What’s wrong, Lexie? Are you all right?” Mom tucked her hand, the gun still in it, into the pocket of her sweater before inspecting me with a worried gaze.
“Do you think I’m all right? You have a gun.” And my brain might be broken. It was enough to totally freak a girl out.
“Yes, I do. Now, come on.” She tugged my arm, and I let her speed walk me through the rest of the mall. I was in too much shock to resist.
Mom and I burst through the glass doors, and as soon as the humid Ohio summer hit me, I found my voice. “Mom. Stop. What’s going on?”
She kept moving across the parking lot despite the heat turning the pavement into a shimmering river. “Get in the car. We’ve got to go.”
I dug my heels in until she stopped. “How long have you had that thing? Do you even know how to use it? You’re just a scientist for god’s sake!”
She threw a worried glance back at the mall doors, tucking a strand of her honey-colored hair behind her ears before turning to me. “We’re two single women living alone. It’s for our protection.”
I shook my head. “What exactly do you expect to happen?”
“Anything can happen,” she said with a frown, her glance flicking past me again. “Now, really, we need to get home. Will you please get in the car?”
“Fine.” I yanked open the door and slid into the sweltering interior. Mom had us in reverse before I’d even shut it behind me.
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye as she drove. Her knuckles were white against the steering wheel, and a muscle jumped in her temple. Dread felt like a heavy hand on my chest, and I stayed quiet until we pulled into the driveway. She switched the car off, but I didn’t move.
“What’s going on?” I asked softly. “You’ve never lied to me before.”
Mom turned to face me, her eyes serious. “I’m not lying. The gun is for protection. I want to make sure you’re safe.”
“Safe from what? What did you see back at the mall?”
She shook her head. “Nothing you need to worry about. I promise. Now, let’s get inside before we melt in all this heat.” She used her firm tone of voice, the one that told me the conversation was over even though I still had more questions. I had no choice but to follow her into the house and ignore the fear already twisting my insides into knots.
“Lexie, your dad’s on the phone,” Mom called from downstairs.
I tugged my headphones off with a frown. Music was the only thing keeping me from freaking out about what had happened at the mall earlier today. Now Dad was on the phone? What the hell was going on?
“What does he want?” I called back.
“I don’t know — just pick it up.”