Between Mom and Jo


By Julie Anne Peters

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A heartfelt family story from National Book Award finalist Julie Anne Peters.

Nick has a three-legged dog named Lucky, some pet fish, and two moms who think he's the greatest kid ever. And he happens to think he has the greatest moms ever, but everything changes when his birth mom and her wife, Jo, start to have marital problems. Suddenly, Nick is in the middle, and instead of having two moms to turn to for advice, he has no one.

Nick's emotional struggle to redefine his relationships with his parents will remind readers that a family's love can survive even the most difficult times.


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of Lies My Girlfriend Told Me

Copyright Page

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I'm sitting on a cold metal slab, and there's blood all over my shirt. I've been screaming so long my throat's raw. Jo leaps out from behind the door and goes, "Ha!"

You know those sticks doctors gag you with when they're looking down your throat? Tongue depressors. Jo's slid two of them up under her top lip. In a goofy voice she says, "I'm Wally Walrus. Tusk. Tusk." One of the tongue depressors falls out. "Oops," Jo says. "Make that tusk." She bends over to retrieve the stick off the floor.

Through my blur of tears I see something on her butt. I hiccup and point.

"What?" Jo bolts upright. She reaches back. "Oh, hey. I wondered where that went." She peels a gummy worm off her jeans and slurps it into her mouth. I giggle a little.

Jo clutches her throat, staggering backward like she's poisoned. She knocks a box of latex gloves off the counter and curses. I can't see her as she's picking up the box, but I hear blowing sounds. Cautiously I peer over the edge of the table.

Jo shoots up, and I yelp. She's filled a glove with air and twisted it at the wrist, and she's holding it in the middle of her head. She's bobbing and strutting around the room going, "Cock-a-doodle-doo. Cock-a-doodle"—reaching out a claw to grab me. She pecks at me. Her eyes are evil and she's going to get me. Just as I shriek, the doctor bursts in. He looks from Jo to me.

"Who needs help here?" he asks.

Jo and I point to each other. We both crack up.

For a moment I forget I'm in the emergency room getting stitches for the gash in my chin. I forget I've been howling and wailing and clutching my jaw ever since I fell and hit it on the coffee table, and Jo had to scoop me up, wrap me in a towel, and rush me to the hospital. I don't forget she held me on her lap the whole way here while my face and eyes throbbed and I cried and bled and screamed bloody murder. I imagined I was dying and my life would go away.

We're laughing now; we're laughing so hard I forget how much it hurt and how scared I am.

Weird. Wow. That was my first memory of being alive. I'd just turned three. I'm fourteen now, but I remember that like it was yesterday. Where was Mom? At work, probably. Or home. She hates hospitals. I don't know why I kept a reminder of that day. All these years, all these reminders. Some things you carry with you forever; you don't need reminders. Some things leave permanent scars.


"How come Jo never comes with us to Neenee and Poppa's?" I ask.

Mom shifts Beatrice into reverse and doesn't answer. Beatrice is our truck. Jo named it, she says, after a line in an Eminem song: "The streets ain't never want you Beatrice."

At the end of the driveway, Mom digs in her purse for her sunglasses and slides them on, even though it isn't sunny. They hide her red eyes.

"Mom? How come—"

"It's complicated," she says.

But it's Thanksgiving, I think. Jo should be with us. She should come. "What does 'complicated' mean?"

Mom lets out a long sigh. "Oh, Nick," is all she says.

"What's complicated?" I ask again. "What's—"

"Okay! You know that time you broke Zachary's fire engine?"

"It was a accident," I cry. I already explained a hundred times that I was testing the ladder to see if it could reach to the window, because the burning people might have to jump through the window to escape.

Mom tilts her head at me and smiles a little. "I know you didn't do it on purpose. But remember how Zachary's mom wouldn't let you play with him after that?"

I feel sad all over again, remembering. "Why couldn't I play with Zachary? Jo fixed the ladder."

"I know she did."

"And I apologized." I wanted Zachary to be my friend again. I said he could play with all of my toys, all the time. He could even break them and I wouldn't care.

Mom sighs again. "Some people can be very unforgiving."

"What's 'unforgiving'?"


"Never mind." I know what it means.

We stop at a red light, and Mom grips the steering wheel harder. "It means holding a grudge," she says without looking at me. "It means a person won't give you a second chance. It means you can't drop it and move on, so you exclude people from your life who could be your family—people who want to, who would love to, but you won't let them." She shifts and guns Beatrice.

I think about this. I thought "unforgiving" was not saying I'm sorry and meaning it. "So Zachary's mom holds a grudge on me?"

Mom mutters, "Forget it."

I can't forget it. I don't want to forget it. I want to understand and I want Zachary to be my friend. "Jo says Zachary's mom is a bitch."

"She's not the only one." Mom's jaw clenches.

She reaches over and squeezes my knee. "I'm sorry, sweetie. This has nothing to do with you. Don't say that word again, okay? It's not a nice word."

"It's a dog, right?"

Mom removes her hand.

"Jo says—"

"Can we not talk about Jo? Can we not talk at all?"

A car bolts through the intersection, and Mom has to slam on the brakes to avoid it. She says the F word.

I ball my fist to slug her in the arm four times, wondering if we're going to add "bitch" to our slug scale. It would probably only get one slug, like "damn." Or maybe two, like "shit." I think Mom's not having a very good day already, so I don't slug her. I repeat what Jo always says, "For a price, I'd be willing to forget I ever heard that."

Mom laughs. "You're even starting to sound like Jo."

I smile wide, showing my teeth.

We don't talk the rest of the way to Neenee and Poppa's house. Mom fiddles with the radio until she finds a station with slow, boring music. It makes me sleepy, and I close my eyes.

The next thing I know Poppa is hauling me out of my seat and squeezing me, his scratchy beard scraping against my face. "Hey, Nicholas. How's my best boy?" Poppa sets me down on the sidewalk. At arm's length he examines me. "Look at you. Every time I see you, you've grown another foot."

I glance down at my feet and count, "One. Two." Poppa laughs. He hugs Mom and says, "Hi, honey. We were getting worried about you."

"We got a late start," Mom murmurs. "Sorry." She removes the Jell-O salad from the truck cab. It's still a little watery, but that's because the refrigerator's on the fritz again. There aren't too many miniature marshmallows either, because Jo opened the bag last night. She showed me how to roast mini marshmallows on the stove with a toothpick. She said now I know how to start the house on fire.

"Erin, Nicholas, there you are." Neenee flings open the front screen door. "Come up here and give your grandma a big smooch." She opens her arms to me, and I run.

Neenee is squishy and she smells like almonds. "Hello, Erin." She kisses Mom on the cheek. "You look thin." Her forehead wrinkles. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," Mom says.

Neenee holds Mom's eyes.

"I'm fine."

Neenee shifts to me and grins. "Nicky, look at you. All dressed up in your Sunday go-to-meetin' clothes."

"What's 'go-to-meetin''?" I ask.

Neenee doesn't answer because she's whisking us inside. Uncle Derrick and Aunt Lizzie are already there with their four born losers. That's what Jo calls them. They're all lined up on the couch with their dad, watching football. One of them bares his fangs at me like he's going to eat me alive. He might.

I hang on to Mom for protection. As we pass the bathroom, the toilet flushes, and Aunt Lizzie barrels out. My eyes pop. I want to say what I'm thinking: Wow, you're fat! But I do like Jo tells me when I shouldn't blurt out: I count to myself, One ignoramus, two ignoramus…

Mom and Aunt Lizzie and Neenee start gabbing in the kitchen, and I get bored. Poppa and Uncle Derrick are cussing out the ref on TV. My cousins have disappeared, so I wander out to the backyard to see what they're up to.

The oldest two are leaning against the toolshed, smoking cigarettes. "Hey, Nicky," one of them calls. "Want a drag?" He offers me a slimy butt.

I curl a lip. Cancer sticks, that's what Jo calls cigarettes. She made Mom stop smoking so she wouldn't die. I'm just about to inform my cousins that their lungs are black and shriveled when bam! A soccer ball clobbers me right in the face, and my glasses go flying.

"Oh, sorry, Nicky." My younger cousin rushes up to me. "I thought with four eyes you'd see it coming." He snickers. They all hee-haw.

My cheek feels like it's on fire and I want to cry, but I don't want my cousins to think I'm a baby. If Jo was here, she'd smack him upside the head. I find my glasses in the grass and put them back on.

My cousin tousles my hair and kicks the soccer ball to my other cousin. I wait for them to ask me to play, but they don't, so I wander back into the house.

It smells like roasted turkey and gravy and pumpkin pie. I wonder again why Jo hates Thanksgiving.

Mom isn't in the kitchen anymore. Neenee is smashing potatoes and asking Aunt Lizzie how she's feeling. Aunt Lizzie replies, "Like a hippo. If this baby gets any bigger, they're going to need the Jaws of Life to get him out of me." She rubs her big belly. "He's kicking." Aunt Lizzie sees me in the doorway. "Come here, Nicky. You want to feel?"

"No way." It makes my jaw ache just thinking about swallowing a baby. That's how Mom said babies get in there. Jo snorted and said, "Don't believe that, Nick. We'll talk later." But I do believe it. It makes sense.

"Where's Mom?" I ask.

Neenee says, "I think she went to find you. To give you the wishbone. Tell her we're just about ready to eat."

Mom isn't in the living room. She isn't in the basement. I find her outside in Beatrice, listening to her sleepy music. And crying.

I tap on the passenger window.

Mom's head jerks up, and she yanks the keys out of the ignition. She blows her nose in a Kleenex. I sweep a fake fork to my mouth, since I don't think she can hear with the window rolled up.

Mom opens her door and steps down to the street. "Bet you're starving, huh?" She circles around the front of Beatrice.

"Not really," I tell her, because suddenly I'm not hungry. I just want to go home.

I take Mom's hand and squeeze it. She squeezes back. Let's go, I want to say, but Mom pulls me toward the house, smiling, swinging our hands.

At the door we stop, and Mom says, "I almost forgot." She pulls the turkey wishbone out of her front pocket. It's warm and greasy. "Want to make a wish?" She curls an index finger around one end of the bone.

"Not yet," I say. "It has to dry." Mom knows that. The wish won't take unless the bone breaks.

Everybody's seated when we reach the dining room. "There you are." Neenee bustles in from the kitchen, removing her apron. "Hurry up. Take your seats for the blessing."

Mom and I sit down. I notice all the chairs are full. That's not right. There should be an extra place setting on the other side of me. For Jo. My other mom.

Why hasn't anyone even asked where Jo is? The turkey is steaming and there's a lump of butter melting down the sides of the mashed potatoes, and all I can think about is how much I miss Jo. I wonder what she's doing right now. I meet Mom's eyes, her faraway eyes, and I know she's thinking the same thing.

Poppa says, "Lord, we are gathered here today—"

"Wait," I say. "Wait till everybody's here."

All the bowed heads rise in unison. Neenee blinks at me. "What do you mean, Nicky? We are all here."

"Jo isn't. We should wait for her."

I see Neenee glance at Mom. Mom closes her eyes and drops her head down. "Jo isn't coming, Nick," Mom says. "You know that."

"But why?" I ask. "We want her here. What's complicated about that?"

Neenee stares at Mom. Mom keeps her head down. Neenee repeats, "You heard your mother. She isn't coming." She says to Poppa, "Say the blessing, Phil."

"I hate you," I blurt out. I say to Neenee, "You're a bitch." I don't know why; it's all confused with complications and forgiveness.

Chairs scrape back. Mom grabs my arm and yanks me toward her, away from Uncle Derrick. He's got my other arm and he's snarling in my face, "You little jerk. Apologize to your grandma."

"No," I snipe at him.

Mom hugs me to her. "I'm sorry. He didn't mean it, Derrick. He doesn't understand."

"Yes, I do." My voice muffles in Mom's bulky sweater.

I feel Mom scoot back and stand up. "I'm sorry," she says. "We'll just go." Mom lifts me, and I wrap my legs around her waist and hug her neck. "Maybe next year…" She heads for the door.

"Erin," Neenee calls. "Phil, stop them."

"I'm sorry, Dad," Mom says outside on the porch. "He doesn't understand."

Poppa says, "Then explain it to him."

Mom whispers in my hair, so low I don't think anyone else can hear, "I can't. I don't know how."

She never did explain. She never could. She never talked to me about important stuff, vital stuff, when she could have. When she needed to.

I wish…

I don't know what I wish. I wish I hadn't saved that stupid wishbone in my scrapbook. But back then, what did I know? I was a stupid little kid.


"I don't want them to be dead!" I wail.

Mom says, "That's what happens when you don't take care of them. When was the last time you fed them?"

"I don't know." I hiccup in a sob. "I thought you were feeding them."

"They're your fish. They're your responsibility." Mom's angry, and I step back out of range. She'd never hit me. She only says, "I guess we don't have to worry about feeding them anymore, do we?" She nets the last dead body from my aquarium while I crumple on the floor and bawl my head off.

"What's going on?" Jo bops into my room. She shoves her hard hat under her armpit. "Whoa, there, Saint Nick. Who died?"

That makes me cry harder.

Mom mutters, "Some saint. He killed his fish."

"I did not!" I scream at Mom. I launch to my feet and rush her; start pounding on her back with my fists.

"Stop that." Jo grabs my wrist and wrenches me away. "Don't you ever hit your mother. Don't you ever hit a girl, period. You hear me?" she snarls in my face.

I cower because when Jo's mad, watch out.

"Now tell me what happened," she says more calmly.

Mom answers, "No one bothered to feed the fish. I told you he was too young for pets."

"I am not," I shoot back.

Jo takes a deep breath. "This is my fault. We went over the water temperature and how the fish need oxygen to breathe and how the snails keep the tank clean. But I don't remember talking about how often to feed them. Do you, Nick?"

"No," I lie. Jo told me to sprinkle the food in once a day, every day. I just forgot.

"Sorry, hon," she says to Mom. "It won't happen again."

Jo jabs me on the arm.

Mom murmurs, "No more pets. I can't take them dying." She's talking about Lucky.

Jo swallows hard. "Uh, yeah—"

A howl, then a squealing like a siren makes us all jump. Jo says, "Don't follow me," and sprints for the door.

Mom and I exchange a look. Right. I race after Jo, with Mom on my heels. We run through the kitchen and head to the backyard.

Jo yells, "No! Get back. Back!"

The screen door slams behind me. As I skid to a stop in the grass, a mass of fur comes charging at me, and I scream.

Jo shrieks, "Put him down. Let go!" Jo's beating on this thing, this animal, this hairy beast. All I hear is hissing and squalling, then I see Savage, our cat, drop to the grass. The beast's fangs glisten. Savage tears toward me, and I crouch, covering my head. Mom flings open the screen, and Savage barrels for the basement.

Jo hollers, "Is he okay?"

Mom doesn't answer. I say, "I think so." I didn't see any limping or shredded skin.

Mom glares at Jo. "What the hell is that?"

I bound over and slug Mom once for "hell."

Jo hooks her fingers around something on the beast. A collar. The beast is a dog. A monster dog.

"She likes cats," Jo says. "She was just playing with Savage."

"Oh, that's comforting." Mom expels a puff of air. "Where'd it come from?" She folds her arms tight across her chest. Meanwhile, I slowly approach the dog. "Be careful, Nick." Mom thrusts out a hand to snag my shirt, but misses.

Jo says, "Sit," and stiff-arms the dog. The dog obeys. "I brought her home from work."

Mom goes, "Jo—"

"She won't hurt Nick. She's been hanging around the construction site the last couple of weeks. I think someone dumped her. She's starving, Erin. A couple of us have been feeding her, then today the big dope chases the forklift and gets her leg caught in the rigging. It looks pretty mangled. I couldn't just leave her out there."

I pet the dog's head, and she licks my chin.

Mom and Jo fix on each other for a long minute before Mom drops her head and shakes it. She pivots and returns inside. Jo and I grimace at each other. We hear Mom clomp on the stairs, and we trail behind.

"Stay," Jo orders the dog.

"She's a sweet dog, hon," Jo says at Mom's back. "Someone trained her. She knows 'sit' and 'shake.' Did you see how fast she dropped Savage after I told her no? She's really gentle; she'll be great with Nick."

"No more animals, Jo," Mom's voice carries in the basement. "Especially not a dog. You know I can't go through that again." She inhales a deep, shaky breath, and lets it out. "Nick's too young to be responsible, and I'm the one who ends up taking care of the pets. Have you noticed that?" She stops at the bottom of the stairs and twists around. "Either of you?" We almost plow into her.

"What about Savage?" I say.

Mom narrows her eyes at me.

Jo whispers in my ear, "Smartass." I slug her once for "ass."

Mom's the one who let Savage in one night. He was a stray. She's the one who named him.

She claps her hands and clicks her tongue. "S-a-a-vage. Come on, baby. Where are you? You're okay."

Jo sits on the step next to me. "She's really cool, Nick. A Great Pyrenees, one of the guys said. We could breed her and have puppies."

I widen my eyes at Jo.

"Okay, that's probably not my most brilliant idea at the moment." There's a scuffling noise at the far edge of the basement, behind a boxful of old toys and Jo's busted stereo. Savage shoots up the wall to the ceiling joists, and growls.

Mom coos, "It's okay, baby. Calm down."

Savage skulks away toward the furnace. He's feral, a wild-cat. Mom called Jo the same thing once. Jo said, "Yeah, and you're the only one who can tame me." It must be true, because Mom's the only one Savage will let near him. Mom kisses and clicks and eventually coaxes Savage into her arms.

As she hurries toward us, Jo and I jump up and separate to let Mom by.

Jo bends over to give me a pony ride up the stairs. On the way she says, "You know, Nick, everything happens for a reason. Lucky gets killed, and lo and behold, this dog shows up. I think she was sent here to fill up the hole in our hearts left by Lucky. Especially your mom's."

I don't remember all that much about Lucky. We only had her a couple of months before she got run over by a car. I was the one who left the gate open the morning Lucky got out. She ran straight for Mom. She was still a puppy. Mom was already in the car, backing out of the garage. She swore it wasn't my fault, that she wasn't looking, but I still hear the squeal and feel sick all over again.

Now, Jo lowers me to the landing and stands with her hand pressed flat against my chest. She's staring out the back door, where Mom is sitting on the grass with the dog's head in her lap. Savage is hunched on top of the shed, growling. Mom's running her fingers down the dog's front leg. The skin's all ripped and bloodied, and a length of bone is exposed. Mom hugs the dog's head and starts to rock her. She must notice us at the screen, because she says, "Call around for a vet. See if anyone can get us in right away."

Jo balls a fist and holds it out to me for a knuckle knock. She says softly, "Everything for a reason."

Our new dog ended up having to get her front leg amputated. We named her Lucky 2. While the vet was discussing the operation with Mom, Jo snuck out the film. It's cool, the X-ray of Lucky 2's busted leg. I still have it in my scrapbook (not the leg).

Jo said, "You get a lot of extra body parts, Nick. Parts you don't need to stay alive. You really only need one of everything."

"Yeah?" I quipped. "So how come I got two moms?"

Jo was quick. "One to bring you into this world, and one to take you out." She laughed at my expression. If I knew then what I know now, I might've answered, "Wrong. You only need one for that too."

Mom and Jo

I slam through the front door. Jo must be home already, because the CD player is blasting through the house with the bass turned up so loud the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink are rattling. Mad as I am, I catch a whiff of Mom's smelly soap. Her laugh reaches my ears and I think, Good, they're both here.

The bathroom door is closed, but I don't care. I burst in. "Why did you do this to me?" I scream.

Jo says, "Geezus, Nick. Ever heard of knocking?" She and Mom, who are both in the bathtub naked, slide down below the bubbles so I can't see them. Like I never have. They take baths together all the time. I used to bathe with them until I got too big.

Jo raises a bubbly arm. "Is school out already? What time is it?"

"I hate you! I hate both of you." I slam the door in their stupid ugly faces.


On Sale
Dec 17, 2007
Page Count
240 pages

Julie Anne Peters

About the Author

Julie Anne Peters is the critically acclaimed author of Define “Normal,” Keeping You a Secret, Pretend You Love Me, Between Mom and Jo, She Loves You, She Loves You Not…, It’s Our Prom (So Deal With It), and Luna, a National Book Award finalist.

Learn more about this author