“Does facing the truth beat living a lie? In PRACTICING NORMAL, Cara Sue Achterberg has given us a smart story that is both a window and a mirror, about the extraordinary pain ― and the occasional gifts ― of an ordinary life.”
– Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN
“What does it really mean to have a normal life? Achterberg’s stunning new novel explores how a family can fracture just trying to survive, and how what makes us different is also what can make us most divine.”
– Caroline Leavitt, author of CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD and the New York Times bestsellers PICTURES OF YOU and IS THIS TOMORROW
“PRACTICING NORMAL takes a deep dive into the dysfunctional dynamics of a ‘picture perfect family.’ A compelling story about the beautiful humanity in the most ordinary of lives: from first love to a marriage on the downward slide to an unexpected family tragedy. Achterberg handles each thread with tender care and we can’t help but root for every member of the Turner family.”
– Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of THE VANISHING YEAR
Waving to Jenna as she waits at the bus stop, all I can think is, Please let her go to school today and stay in school all day. Jenna is such a smart girl; I don’t understand why she doesn’t apply herself to her studies. She could be anything. A doctor, even. I was a nurse, but Jenna is smarter than me. Of course, that was twenty years ago. Before I married Everett. Before Jenna and JT were born. Before we ever lived in Pine Estates.
I was the one who chose the house. Everett thought it was pretentious, and it was. All the houses on our end of Pine Road were pretentious. But it was the nineties. Everyone was building McMansions and taking out ridiculous loans to pay for them. Everett had just left his job as a police officer for the job at FABSO (Family and Business Security Options).
We needed to start a new life. We celebrated the new job and didn’t talk about the fact that things could have turned out very differently if his captain had chosen to bring charges against him. Instead, he recommended Everett for the job at FABSO and made it clear Everett would be wise to take it.
I remember lying in bed holding Everett the day he turned in his gun and his badge. He was devastated. Being a cop had been Everett’s dream since childhood. “All I’ve ever wanted to be is a cop. If I can’t be a cop, who am I?”
“You’re a father and a husband. That’s so much more,” I told him. He didn’t say anything about it again. He got to work. He made something of FABSO. And he’s tried so hard to be a good dad.
I don’t remember much about my own dad, and whenever I asked my mother she would say, “There’s nothing to remember about that louse except that he was a louse.” When I pressed her later, after I’d grown up, she’d said, “It doesn’t matter now. He didn’t want to be with us enough to stay.”
All that bitterness can’t hide the fact that when my father left, he apparently took my mother’s heart. She’s spent the rest of her life alone. Except for me. And Evelyn. Although, once Evelyn left home, she didn’t come around much. These days she visits Mama on Saturdays, unless she has something more pressing to do, which is most weeks. Mama annoys her. I suppose I do too. We don’t fit into Evelyn’s shiny, perfect life.
When I first met Everett and told Mama about him, she was skeptical. “A cop?”
I told her how he’d wanted to be a cop since he was a little boy, the same way I always wanted to be a nurse. I gushed about how he told me I was beautiful and how he said he’d been certain about us the first time he saw me. Mama said, “Men will say whatever it takes, Kate. When will you realize that?” But I knew she was wrong about Everett.
I met Everett in the ER. I was treating a patient who was high on coke or meth or God knows what. He was lean and riddled with track marks, his strength coming from whatever drug was flooding his body. I didn’t recognize him as one of our regulars—the ones who showed up like clockwork in search of pain meds. This guy was out of his mind and covered in his own blood from where he’d scratched his thin skin. Another nurse helped me attempt to strap him to the gurney with the Velcro holds, but he was out of his mind and reached for the needle I was about to use to sedate him. Everett was nearby at the desk filling out forms and heard me yell. In just moments, he wrestled the junkie to the ground and held him still as I plunged the needle in. When the man finally collapsed, Everett lifted him back onto the gurney and secured him.
When he turned and looked at me with his green eyes, the same eyes Jenna has, I knew I would marry him. I told him that on our second date. He laughed. I’ve always loved his laugh.
When Everett started at FABSO, he made nearly twice the salary he’d made as a cop. I didn’t need to work any longer. It was our chance. I would stay home and take care of our happy family in our beautiful house in Pine Estates. It was our new start. I thought we belonged there.
When I open the door to Mama’s house, she’s already calling for me. She may be losing her mind, but her hearing hasn’t deteriorated one bit.
“You’re late!” she scolds.
“Sorry, JT had a hard time picking out a shirt to wear today.”
“He’s not a baby! I don’t know why you put up with it.”
I smile at her. No sense taking the bait. “You’re right, Mama.”
“You’ve always been so indecisive. I swear if I didn’t tell you what to do next, you’d stand there like a statue.”
“Good thing you’re so good at telling me what to do,” I mutter as I go to prepare her tea.
Mama wasn’t always like this. When Evelyn and I were little, she was our whole world. She baked homemade cakes for our birthdays, and elaborately decorated them with whatever we were currently obsessing over—Tinker Bell, Barbies, guitars, or, for Evelyn, a computer one year, and the scales of justice the year she announced she was going to be a judge when she grew up.
Mama read to us every night. I remember snuggling into the crook of her arm, even when I was too old to be doing it. Evelyn would be on her other side and our hands would meet on Mama’s flat tummy. I loved the stories with a happy ending, but Evelyn demanded that she read “real books.” She wanted mysteries and thrillers instead of the children’s books Mama picked out at the library. So Mama began to read Nancy Drew, but Evelyn went to the adult aisle and picked out John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King. Mama tried to read them to us. She’d come to a part that she felt was too racy for us and she’d hum while she skimmed ahead til she found a more appropriate section before beginning to read again. This drove Evelyn nuts. She’d pout and complain, eventually stomping off. Mama would return the books to the library unread, but it wasn’t long before Evelyn was old enough to have her own library card and checked them out for herself.
In the mornings, Mama would braid our hair, pack our lunches with tiny handwritten notes, and walk us to the bus stop for more years than was appropriate. When Evelyn reached high school, she demanded that Mama stop, but she still followed us with her car and waited to be certain we got on the bus safely.
Now that I’m a mom, I know it couldn’t have been easy raising us alone. As she’s gotten older, she’s gotten difficult. But I put up with her increasing number of quirks because I feel I owe her. Evelyn doesn’t see it that way, but then again Evelyn doesn’t feel she owes anybody anything.
“Here you go.” I hand Mama the bitter Earl Grey tea she likes over-steeped with no sweetener.
“I’ve already missed Phillip,” she says as I help her out the door to the back porch. She spends most mornings there, talking to the birds that frequent her multiple bird feeders.
“Who’s Phillip?” I ask, mostly to make conversation. She loves to talk about the birds.
The look she gives me is just like the one JT gives me when my random “Wow” comes at the wrong time in one of his lengthy soliloquies on his current obsession. “Phillip is the male cardinal who has begun stopping by each morning. He comes over the fence from the southeast. He’s usually here before the chickadees move in and take over the birdbath.”
I look at the crowd of birds fighting over the seed at the feeder. They all look the same to me. “I’ve got to take care of a few things at home after I run JT to school; I’ll be back at lunchtime.”
“Always leaving me!” she complains. “You can’t even spend five minutes with your mother.”
I’d protest, but there’s no point. She sees things the way she needs to see them. Rewriting history is one of her specialties. I’ve been listening to her do it all my life. When Everett and I took the kids to the beach last summer, she said, “Must be nice! I’ve never had a vacation.” Yet, I remember several summers when Mama took Evelyn and me to the same beach we were headed to. Or when I graduated from nursing school, Mama said, “I’ve always said you’d make a fine nurse,” when, in reality, she’d been telling me for years that I could never be a nurse because I was so weak at chemistry. She thought I should have considered something in business—like being a secretary. She’s been spinning her stories of Evelyn’s escapades, my mistakes, and my father’s general louse-likeness for so long, she probably believes them as gospel truth. They are, I suppose, at least to her mind.
I hurry home, hoping JT has finally decided on a shirt for school. We’re going to be late if we have to argue about it.
Excerpt from Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg. Copyright © 2017 by Cara Sue Achterberg. Reproduced with permission from The Story Plant. All rights reserved.
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