Carmie Hoffman closed her notebook and looked around her street with a sigh. Then she dialed 818-555-6865 and kept walking.
"Behold genius," Carmie said into her cell phone. She tried to smooth her bushy dark hair away from her ear so that the phone would have a clear patch for landing. "Can you hear me now?"
"Yes." Jenny laughed into the phone. Her laugh was big and deep, so Carmie knew she really meant it. "Are you going to read to me from your latest movie script?"
"I said, 'Behold genius,' " Carmie repeated as she opened the door to her house. "My movie is, behold, Star of the Century. But what you are about to see is real genius. Live entertainment!"
"Oh, goody!" Jenny laughed as if she'd never had any entertainment in her life. Carmie liked that nobody could make Jenny laugh as hard as she could. "What is it?"
Carmie walked into the living room. Fluff Bucket, Carmie's fourteen-year-old cat, was on the sofa with her leg straight up like a ballerina. She was one year older than Carmie. Carmie called Fluff Bucket her big sister.
There was the clacking, tap-tap sound of her mother typing at the computer. Her eyes were closed. Her thin, sandy-blond hair was piled up in a sloppy bun. Her skin looked old and a little yellow. A headset covered her ears. Carmie felt a little relieved. At least this time her mother was typing and not just asleep next to Fluff Bucket on the sofa.
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Carmie's mother worked for a doctor's office in Studio City. She had to drive about ten minutes to pick up a stack of tapes and files, take it home, type all the words on the tapes and then take them back. Carmie watched her mother for a few seconds.
"Is your mom home? Can she hear you now?" Jenny asked, laughing.
"I don't know," Carmie said. "Let's test this out. Earth to Elaine." She tried to laugh. "Planet Earth phoning for Elaine Hoffman. If your name is Elaine, press the pound key now."
Carmie's mother's eyes opened slightly. Then they closed again. Carmie watched her mother's long, thin fingers gently hitting each key and thought her mother really should have been a famous piano player. Or a TV host, tapping her fingers on the coffee mug on her desk.
Carmie let her yellow backpack slide off her shoulder and onto the hardwood floor. Fluff Bucket jumped and gave Carmie a cold eye.
"Okay, bye, Mom," Carmie said. "I'm going to Hawaii now."
Carmie's mother kept typing.
"Okay," Carmie said into her cell. "Now here comes the genius you've been waiting for."
"Maybe you shouldn't." Jenny's voice sounded nervous. "Maybe your mom's just really tired again. She can't help it that something's the matter with her. Or she's probably just on one of those big doctor deadlines."
"Or maybe she's just dead." Carmie laughed. She was proud of how funny she was. Then all of a sudden she felt as if she might cry. Why couldn't her mom just be normal like everybody else's mother?
Still holding her cell phone, Carmie went into her bedroom and picked up the old Princess phone on her nightstand. She punched in 818-555-6169. That was the number for the phone right next to the computer.
"One ringy-dingy." Carmie laughed. "Two ringy-dingys." Carmie could hear the phone ringing in the other room. She felt her heart tying in knots.
"I'm hearing three lines," Jenny said. "I don't know if I want to do this again."
"Three ringy-dingys," Carmie said more loudly. "If she answers, Jenny, this time I'm just going to say I'm in Hawaii. It's absolutely hilarious when she's like this."
"Don't." Jenny laughed. "Just come over. She can't help it. I'm warning you," she said. "I'm hanging up."
Carmie heard a click and then the dial tone.
"Hello?" Her mother picked up the phone next to the computer. Her voice sounded slow and tired. "Elaine Hoffman."
Carmie's heart pounded. She dropped the cell phone onto her bed. She hung up the Princess phone and ran into the living room.
"That was just me, Mommy!" Carmie cried. Then she went to the desk and hugged her mother tightly around the shoulders.
"When did you get home?" Elaine smiled and patted Carmie's hand. "I don't think I even heard you. These tapes I have to transcribe today are so complicated."
Elaine placed the headset carefully on the computer. She rubbed her light brown eyes. They looked a little bit runny in the centers. Carmie didn't know exactly what was the matter with her mother. All she knew was that ever since her mom and dad had gotten divorced three years before, her mom had always been tired. She acted as if she had the flu or something. She would be okay for a few days; then she'd get sad and have a high fever. She went to doctors all the time and they all told her different things to do. They said she was sad and maybe she had chronic fatigue syndrome. All that meant was she couldn't stop being tired. Who couldn't already see that? Now she didn't look well again. Carmie hated that her mother acted this way. She knew she had to make her mother feel better.
"So, Mommy." Carmie laughed. "I just called you to find out what's for dinner."
"Just one minute, sweetie," Elaine said, putting the headset back on. "I have to finish typing this last paragraph."
Carmie went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. On the top shelf there were a can filled with vanilla protein powder, a hundred little bottles of vitamins and some milk. Carmie helped herself to a big spoonful of protein powder.
"At least it tastes kind of good," Carmie said, opening a can of cat food for Fluff Bucket. She put the can on the counter. Fluff Bucket jumped up.
"Yours probably tastes better," Carmie said. Then she called into the living room.
"Mommy, want me to order a pizza?" Elaine walked into the room. "I can do it on my cell!"
"Not tonight, honey," Elaine said. "Besides, I don't think that's what your father gave you that cell phone for."
Jenny didn't have her own cell phone yet. In fact, Carmie was one of only three girls who'd just graduated from Van Nuys Middle School and had their own cell phones.
Carmie never liked it when her mother started to talk about her father. Especially when her mother looked as if she didn't feel well. Carmie was afraid it would just make her feel sicker and act more strange.
"Aunt Raleigh is coming for dinner tonight," Elaine said. "And she's bringing her casserole."
"I'm doomed!" Carmie threw up her hands. "Aunt Raleigh always brings something healthy and disgusting. Why must I always be starved to death?"
Elaine laughed softly. "Tofu is supposed to be good for you," she said. "Even the doctors on the tapes say so."
Carmie liked it when she could make her mother laugh, even if she wasn't really joking. When Elaine laughed, she laughed for a long time and her face looked different, more like it did before the divorce.
Carmie loved her aunt Raleigh and her uncle Roy, even though Aunt Raleigh was a vegetarian and would never let any of them eat meat.
"Can I go to Jenny's?" Carmie asked.
"I don't know," Elaine said. "I want you here for dinner. I don't want to be wondering where you are."
"I'll take my cell," Carmie said. "I've got to show Jenny more of my movie script. I've been writing a lot."
"Have you practiced your viola today?"
"I'll be home by six," Carmie said quickly. "I'll practice then. I promise."
Carmie ran into the living room and grabbed her backpack off the floor. School had already been out for half the summer, and the only things she had in there were her movie notebook and pens. That was all she needed.
That and a new life.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Malibu Carmie by Leah Komaiko. Copyright © 2005 by Leah Komaiko. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.