I'd always believed my mother was destined to become a certified Crazy Cat Lady, so the idea of her having a friend of any kind, let alone a boyfriend, took some getting used to. But once I met Bill, I liked him. He had a nice smile and good manners, and God knew what he was doing with Mum. Since I couldn't remember the last time she'd left the house, God knew how they'd even met. A website, I suppose. He was some kind of lecturer or researcher at the university in Cheltenham, so maybe it was a science project.
He turned up with wine and flowers, so I put the first into the fridge and the second into a milk bottle. Mum was supposed to have cooked dinner - Fettuccine Alfredo, nice and simple, I'd even gone down to Sainsbury's and got all the ingredients for her -- but she spent the afternoon playing online poker instead. She did that a lot. Now she looked round the kitchen with her eyebrows raised, as if surprised there was no food on the table.
'I've ordered a pizza,' I said. 'It'll be here soon. Pepperoni, pineapple and olives.'
'Sounds great to me,' Bill said. If he was disappointed, he didn't show it. Man had class.
Mum went to the fridge and took out the wine bottle. 'Zoe was an accident,' she said. 'I never wanted to have kids. Never thought I'd be able to -- freaks of nature are usually sterile.'
Bill and I both blinked. Well, how's that for a conversation stopper?
'Nina, love--' he started, but she held up a hand, and his mouth snapped shut.
'You're thirteen,' she said to me, pouring herself a glass of wine. 'Adolescence, puberty, that's when it kicks in. There are things I have to tell you about. Teach you.'
I gave her my best 'you have got to be kidding me' face. 'I'm fourteen, since you're obviously not keeping count. And are we seriously going to do the talk about the birds and the bees? Now?'
'Actually no, we're going to do the talk about the genetically mutated enhancement of cognitive functions.'
Bill had been shifting in his chair. At that, he froze.
'Would you like to start, dear?' she asked him. 'It is your specialist subject, isn't it?'
Then she grinned at me. 'You were right about all this, Zoe. Him. Us. A science project is exactly what it is.'
I stole a glance at Bill, who was starting to look a little red in the face. Had I actually said that out loud? Normally, I tried harder to keep my uncharitable thoughts to myself. At least one of us needed to understand the concept of politeness.
'Oh, I understand it,' she said. 'I just don't see much point in it.'
Okay. What was going on here? This wasn't funny.
'No, it's not. It's not funny at all.' She drank her wine and looked at Bill. He was very still, only his eyes following her. 'You found me though Ekstrom, didn't you? I knew I'd regret letting that little bastard walk away.'
'Mum, for the love of God--'
'Oh, love of God never has anything to do with it. Love of money, yes. Love of fame, and prestige, and academic recognition. Love of power.' She tilted her glass at Bill. 'Did you really think it was going to be that easy? That you'd bring me in with wine and flowers and sweet nothings? Do you really think you're that good in bed?' She laughed. 'What am I saying? Of course you do.'
Bill still didn't move. I gripped his shoulder. 'Do you have any idea what's going on here, or is she simply trying harder than ever to convince me that she's completely batshit insane?'
He just stared at me.
Mum lifted the wine bottle and topped up her glass. 'You can answer her,' she said.
Air exploded from Bill's mouth in a rush. 'Zoe,' he said, 'listen to me. My phone's in my jacket pocket. Take it out and call Michael. It's in the contacts. Do you understand? Michael. Call Michael.'
'I'm sorry,' my mother said in a sing-song voice. 'Michael can't come to the phone right now. Michael won't be coming to the phone for a long, long time.'
Bill's eyes locked on her, and for the first time I realised he was scared. Really, genuinely scared.
'You know what always amazes me about people like you?' she said. 'That you know, or think you do, what I am. What I can do. And yet still you come. Well, congratulations. You were right. And for your special prize, you get a first-hand demonstration validating all your theories. Aren't you thrilled?'
Bill's adam's apple jerked as he swallowed. It looked painful. 'Nina,' he said, his voice hoarse. 'Please. I'm sorry.'
'Yes,' she said. 'I know.'
Bill silently, horribly, began to cry.
'Look at this,' she said, pointing at him. 'Look at this, girl, and remember. This is how it is. This is how it will always be. Some will try to persuade you, some will try to use you, some will just try to kill you. But they'll come.'
'I don't understand,' I said. My voice sounded very small. 'I don't understand any of this.'
For a moment her expression softened. But only for a moment. As Bill began to make choking sounds, she turned away. 'Try harder,' she said.