My troubles started a few days ago. Mom had come home between shifts at the diner. I was preoccupied with my math homework, and she sat down next to me and put her swollen feet up on the kitchen table.
Mom comes home between shifts whenever she can, although she doesn’t really need to. My oldest brother is in charge while she’s at work, and as for me, I’m old enough to keep myself out of trouble. I just do homework or read. In my whole life, I have never caused trouble.
Well, until now.
And this trouble was just for me.
“So, have you thought of what you want for your birthday yet?” I remember Mom asking. I rested my forehead in the space between my thumb and my index finger, leaning in closer to the math problem I was trying to figure out.
“Come on,” she urged, after a gulp of her iced tea. “I gotta get back to work. What are you really hoping for?”
“An Orion shirt,” I mumbled, still attempting to focus on my work. It was the second week of school, and it was important to me to make a good start, to not fall behind.
“What’s an Orion shirt?” Mom asked enthusiastically.
I shook my head. I hadn’t meant to say anything. I erased the column of numbers I’d been working on.
“Tell me,” Mom said, giving me a nudge with her glass. “What’s an Orion shirt? I’ve never heard of that. Don’t chew on your lips, Dori. They get so chapped.”
I let my lip slip out of my teeth and said quietly, “It’s nothing, just a kind of shirt.”
“That everybody wears?”
I shrugged, then nodded, and dusted my eraser crumbs away instead of looking at her. “They’re just, you know, soft cotton, like knit. With a collar. And on the left collar, there are three small red stars.”
“Oh, yeah,” Mom said cheerfully. “I’ve seen a lot of girls wearing those at the diner. They’re ‘the thing’?”
I shrugged again. “Yeah, but they’re expensive.”
“Oh.” Mom stood up and kissed me on the top of my head. “Well, maybe the strike will end soon.”
“Maybe,” I said.
My father’s union had been on strike since July, more than two months already. Every day, my mother told me maybe it would end soon. We hadn’t even gone shopping for school supplies, our annual tradition the weekend before school starts. I was still using last year’s notebooks, trying to write small—to not use too much paper.
“I don’t really want an Orion shirt,” I told her as she rinsed her glass. “I was kidding. What I’d really like is, um, maybe a package of colored pencils. You know, the eight-pack they sell in AJ’s store.”
I knew my brother AJ could get them for a 40 percent discount at the stationery store where he works after school.
“We’ll see,” Mom said, getting up. “I’d better hustle.”