St. Louis, Missouri
Katherine emerged from her kitchen, licking chocolate icing from her index finger. There was another loud rap at her door. "Hang on a sec. Im coming." Absently, she padded across the room, her mind focused more on her upcoming date and the brownies shed broken down and bought at the supermarket that afternoon than on who could be knocking.
She peered through the peephole to find a tall, but non-descript man in a ubiquitous blue blazer, white shirt, and wrinkled, beige Dockers standing in the hall. He smiled brightly, knowing she was looking at him, and she found herself smiling back, despite the fact that she figured he was here to sell her something she didnt want and couldnt afford even if she did want it. She unhooked the chain and opened the door, stepping out into the hallway.
"Katherine Schaub?" he asked hopefully, producing an envelope from the breast pocket of his jacket.
Automatically, she extended her hand to take it. Then, abruptly, the smile disappeared and the blood drained from her face. She yanked her hand back as though the envelope was on fire. "Im being served?" she shrieked, her hand coming to throat. "No fucking way! I am not Katherine Schaub. Never heard of her."
She jumped back into her apartment and jerked the door closed, only to come up short when the man inserted his foot in the doorway.
"Ouch!" he hissed as the wood collided with this shoe, and his face turned red from pain. "Jesus."
Katherine hesitated, instantly feeling guilty for hurting him but then thought better of it and began to kick his shoe. "Get out! I paid my credit card bill." Her kicks moved to his ankle. "Dont you people ever give up?"
"Wait!" His face contorted in pain. "God almighty!" He stuck his arm out to hold the door and snatched his foot away, shaking it wildly and wincing. "Im not a process server. I swear." His eyes begged her to believe him.
"Who are you then?" she asked, her eyes narrowed warily. Suddenly she wished she hadnt spent so many late nights watching all those A&E shows about serial killers.
When she appeared to calm a bit, he took a step backwards into the hall and put what he desperately hoped would be a safe distance between them.
Katherine audibly exhaled.
"Im Ted," when he saw her eyes widen he quickly added, "not Bundy, by the way. He got the electric chair years ago."
She didnt appear convinced.
"Uh... Okay. Ive been hired to give you this envelope." When her mouth flew open and she shot him a glare that had him worried she was going to kick him right in the balls, he held up a hand to forestall her. "I promise its not a summons."
"Really?" She couldnt help but be skeptical after hed refused to let her shut her door. "Youre just a delivery guy?"
"Im just here to deliver an invitation, honest to God."
Against her better judgment she took the envelope, rolling her eyes when she heard him let out a relieved breath. "Sorry about your foot." She shrugged as though the entire incident had been completely out of her control. "Let me get my purse. I"
"No need for a tip," he said quickly, not giving her a chance to do or say anything further before he disappeared back down the hall.
Katherine flipped the envelope over in her hands, examining it curiously as she shut the door and made her way back to her sofa. It was addressed to "Katy," letting her know that whoever had sent it had to be someone who knew her very, very well or someone who didnt know her at all and had inadvertently used the diminutive from her childhood.
She tore open the envelope and removed a heavy-stock, white card. Her eyes scanned to the bottom of the page and then widened almost comically and her heart began to pound. A small piece of paper fell out of the note and onto her lap. She promptly ignored it. "Ill be goddamned," she whispered to herself as she focused on the small neat script that covered every inch of available surface.
Its been forever. But I guess you know that. For me, forever has been filled with regret over the way our friendship ended. The way the Mayflower Club ended. My fault, I know, but Im hoping that time hasnt run out on my chance to heal old wounds and renew the friendships that were more important than I had the sense to understand way back when.
It finally happened. One of us, me, to be precise, is about to hit the ancient number we all laughed about as children. With my birthday comes a promise that Im going to selfishly hold you to. I know it was given from the heart then please dont break it now.
The Langtrees own a small B&B just outside the city named Charlottes Web. I hope to see you there. Oct. 24-26.
Katherine swallowed thickly. "Christ." She dropped the card onto the cushion next to her and mechanically made her way to the freezer, where she was hiding a pack of cigarettes from herself. With a groan, she let her head rest against the freezer door for a moment as she thought. Finally, she pushed aside a stack of Lean Cuisines and fished out the cold pack of Salem Lights, tapping one free from the pack as she wove her way around her small kitchen table and back to her sofa. Placing the cigarette in her mouth, she felt the chill against her lips as the paper stuck.
Her conversation with Toby earlier in the week came rushing back to her. Was it a coincidence that someone was checking her out and then shed received a letter from a long-lost friend? No way.
Her eyes caught sight of the small piece of paper that shed disregarded earlier, now sitting on the floor. She was almost afraid to look.
She lit her cigarette and exhaled a long stream of smoke, her hand trembling a little as she held up the paper and read.
In soft cotton shorts and a slightly oversized t-shirt, Jacie sat at her dining room table scanning a set of architectural plans for a restaurants dining area. She would visit the work site tomorrow, but she'd already had several phone conversations with the owner, who, like many of her clients, gave her vague instructions as to color preference, specific restrictions with price and quality, and left the design details up to her.
Which was just the way she liked it.
Shed been back in St. Louis for nearly five years, and during that time, Jacie had developed a reputation as not only a craftsman and good businesswoman but as an artist. Her tile and marble designs graced the floors and walls of some of the most spectacular historical and contemporary rooms in the South. And though her small company would take on standard commercial and exceptional domestic projects, she was finally in a financial position where she could restrict herself to the projects that sparked her creative interest. It had been a long time in coming.
Tiles of every color imaginable were stacked along the edges of the restaurant plans and she pushed aside a large pile of unopened mail to make room for another stack of hand-painted squares, purchased in New Mexico last spring. She was so engrossed in what she was doing that when the phone rang, she jumped.
She answered it absently, her eyes still fixed on the tiles, one hand sketching out an idea on a large notepad. "Jacie Priest."
Jacie dropped her pencil. "Holy shit," she exclaimed, a disbelieving smile lighting her face. "Katy?"
Katherine laughed. "That would be me. Damn, its good to hear your voice, Jacie."
Dark eyes went glassy. "Yours, too. I cant believe youre calling me after all these years. How did you get my number?" she asked quickly, knowing her home phone to be unlisted. "Where are you?"
"Im here in St. Louis just like the paper says." There was a long pause. "Didnt you get an invitation?"
Jacies brow crinkled. "What invitation?"
"An invitation from Gwen."
Jacies smiled vanished and her grip on the phone tightened and Katherine could hear a few muffled curse words. "Why would I get an invitation from her?"
"Aww shit, Jacie."
Jacie picked her pencil back up and began tapping it on her kitchen table. "Look, I have no idea what youre talking about. I was never very good at guessing games. I know I havent gotten anything from Gwen." Her voice took on a dark edge. "And if I did, it would go in the circular file. If thats what you called me for, then youre wasting your time."
Unseen by Jacie, Katherine rolled her eyes. "Just check your mail. The invitation might be there. I got mine today."
"God!" Katherine exploded. "You were always a pain in the ass. How could I have forgotten that?"
At that, Jacie couldnt help but chuckle. "And youre not?"
"Of course I am. We all were. Nobody could stand us but each other. Check your mail."
Jacie groaned and reached across the table and to grab a stack of unopened mail that had been piling up for several days. "Fine. Here we go: Credit Card Bill"
Jacie smiled. "Junk mail shoe catalog." She tossed that one over her shoulder, not caring that it landed in the sink. "More junk mail about the gazillion dollar low interest loan I qualify for."
"I wish Id get that one."
"Nothing. Keep looking."
She tossed the loan envelope over her shoulder. "Junk mail flyer about how to meet sexy, busty women online." She set that on the table to check out the photos later. "Thats it. Now, enough about a stupid invitation. What have you been?"
"Wait. It might have been a special delivery. Mine was."
Jacie sighed loudly. "There hasnt been" Then her eyes widened with recognition and she went over to her sofa and started digging through her briefcase, her phone still pressed to her ear. "Some guy came by the office this morning. Of course he happened to be there at the same time as the UPS guy and my postman, so I just stuck his envelope on my desk at work. I figured it was another one of those charity dinner invitations where I should be grateful to be invited to a $250 a plate rubber chicken dinner."
Her satchel-style briefcase was so full that she finally resorted to dumping it upside-down and shaking things out of the pockets. When she saw a crumpled white envelope fall out, she grabbed it and went back to the table.
The return address was from Gwen Langtree in Town & Country, Missouri, a ritzy suburb about 12 miles outside of St. Louis. "Well, Ill be goddamned," Jacie breathed.
"Thats what I said."
"What does she want?"
"Open it and see."
Jacie jumped up from the table and stuffed the invitation into the trashcan "No. Gwen can go fuck herself."
"Jesus, Jacie. Fine. Ill tell you what it says. Shes apologizing and wants us all to get together. She put all of our addresses and phone numbers there. Thats how I found you. I didnt even know you were back in town."
Jacie stalked back to her chair but continued to shoot daggers at her trashcan. "Ive been back in St. Louis for years. I got tired of all that fresh air and clean living in Santa Fe," she said dryly.
"Audreys in Utah. I wonder if shes a Mormon or one of the Osmonds by now. She always did want a dozen kids."
Jacie leaned back in her chair. "Wouldnt you know? Youre in the same family, for Christs sake."
"I havent seen or spoken to her for years. We drifted apart after Well, things were never the same once we all split. Seems like funerals are the only thing that get the whole family together anymore. And most of the older generation is gone already."
"Umm " She did her best to sound casual. "What about Nina?" The name tasted funny on her lips after having gone so many years without saying it out loud.
Katherine let out a knowing grunt. "Shes here."
Jacie licked her lips as butterflies began to dance in her belly. "In St. Louis? Youre kidding." Visions of running into Nina at some gas station or the post office filled her with a combination of dread and ever-present longing.
"Well, yeah, but not in the city. In a suburb. I guess we all find our way home eventually." Impatient as ever, Katherine got right to the point and asked, "So are you going to accept Gwens invitation?"
Was she? Could she risk it and try to be mature, letting bygones be bygones after all these years? "Fuck no."
"Jacieeeeee," Katherine whined. "Why not?"
She felt an explosion of burning anger that extended from the pit of her stomach to the tip of her toes, and she fought to keep from growling out her words. "How can you ask me that?"
"I can ask you that because I love you... moron. Ive been thinking about this all day. And Ive come to the realization that I miss you. I miss all of us. Even Gwen. "
Jacie sat there, stunned. "I
I dont know what to say, Katy. I miss you too. Just the other day Emily did something goofy that reminded me of Audrey. I about fell over laughing."
"Is Emily your dog? Audrey always could lick her own nose."
Jacie smiled. "Shes my daughter."
"You have a kid?" Katherine screeched, her voice rising several octaves. "How freaky! I heard you were allergic to penises. You could have told me, you know."
Jacie rolled her eyes. "Oh, Christ."
She laughed as she put her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her palm. "How have I gone all these years without talking to you, Katy?"
"Good question. But do you miss me enough to come to this thing Gwen is having?"
Jacie fell quiet. "You dont know what youre asking," she said after a moment of soul searching, all traces of good humor gone.
"Yes, I do. Im asking you to let go of the past and step into the future with your friends."
"I cant," Jacie said through gritted teeth. "Theres more to it than you realize."
"You can, too," Katherine insisted with all the stubbornness of a 2-year-old.
And with that, both women dug in their heels.
Katherine waited a few minutes before speaking, hoping in vain that Jacie would back down first. They had both been strong-willed girls and were now even stronger-willed women, their obstinacy surpassed only by that of Nina, who was practically unbeatable in that department. "Just so you know, Im going to go. Ill call in sick on Friday if I have to."
"Ill bet anything Audrey will come."
"Say hello for me."
Katherine cocked a challenging eyebrow. "And Nina."
"And you promised youd come. We all did."
Double shit. "Ugh. I have to go now, Katy." Jacies gaze darted around the room desperately, as though an excuse might suddenly jump out from behind the sofa. She wouldnt have bothered to give an excuse to most people. But this was Katy. "Im ahh
"You dont have jack crap to do and you know it. Youre just going to go and sulk and think about what I said and come up with some more excuses."
Jacie bared her teeth at the phone. "Youre trying to quit smoking again, arent you?" Katherine had been in the process of quitting since she was 17.
Arctic blue eyes turned to slits. "Are you implying that Im irritable?"
"Im not implying anything. The norm with you is irritable. When youre trying to give up smokes youre irritable and irrational."
The women fell back into the easy banter, each hearing the smile in the others words. They always had been too much alike for their own good. They talked for a few moments, exchanging nothing but the bare bones of their current lives, before another awkward silence fell.
"Well, I guess Ill talk to you later," Katherine said, vowing to call her every day between now and the end of October in order to convince her to go. Shed be damned if she was going to show up at some fancy Langtree B&B all by her lonesome. "Oh, wait. Before I hang up, I was wondering if youd noticed anyone checking you out lately?"
Dark eyebrows rose. "Not that I know of." She smirked. "Though I am pretty hot."
A burst of laughter exploded from Katherine. "You always were, Jacie, but Im talking about checking you out financially. Let me tell you what I think ."
Robbie slurped down the rest of his milk and happily licked away the remnants of his milk mustache. "Can I be finished now, Mom?"
Nina smiled indulgently, knowing the boy was anxious to try out their newly installed Internet connection and email a friend or two back in Detroit. "Sure."
"Oh, thanks, Mom," he said quickly, jumping out of his seat and placing a quick peck on her cheek and then his grandmothers.
They were eating dinner at a small oak table in the kitchen. The dining room, which was lit by an enormous gold and glass chandelier and still held her grandmothers shiny, cherry-wood dining set, was too far from the refrigerator, not to mention overly formal for Ninas taste.
"Dont run," Nina called after him, rolling her eyes at the sound of Robbies footsteps pounding up the wooden staircase.
Ninas mother set her napkin on the table, chuckling. "Id forgotten what a joy and handful a child can be. Hes such a sweet boy."
Nina beamed. "He is."
"I cant believe how well hes turning out. And all without a father."
Ninas smile dissolved and Agnes was quick to clarify herself. "Not that I disapprove of your choice, dear." She forced a cheerful look on her face. "I know there are a lot of single women today. Still, I cant believe most of them are single because they want to be. Theres no reason on earth for a pretty, smart girl like you to be home on Saturday nights."
She sighed, not wanting to have this discussion for the thousandth time. What Nina said never changed, but somehow her mother managed to appear suitably shocked by what she heard every single time. Ninas lips thinned with residual anger over feeling that she needed to explain herself one more time. "I dont want a man, period. You know that Im interested in women, not men. Youve known that for years. Must you pretend like its not true?"
"It wasnt always true," Agnes answered sharply. Then she visibly took hold of her emotions. "And whos pretending? I was talking about another parent for Robbie. One parent, no matter how much they want to, cant be everything to a child. Its impossible."
"I have always preferred women and you have always acted like you didnt hear me when I made it crystal clear that I never intended to find or settle down with Mr. Right."
"Well." Agnes scoffed. "Not with that attitude."
Nina tilted her face skyward. "Why am I being punished?" She lifted her hands in supplication. "Im a good person. Honest, I am."
Mrs. Chilton ignored her daughters theatrics. "Its not as though youve ever taken the time to explain how all in one day you went from dating that nice boy Lucas to moving in with that Carol person."
"There were years, not days, between those two events, Mom. And I just" Nina sighed pushed her plate away, her appetite gone. How could she explain the uncertainty and anxiety that went along with her heart telling her one thing while everyone else she cared about was insisting on another? Do I even want to try? Then she thought of Robbie and the life she wanted to build here. "I didnt talk more about it because I was confused myself. Things were never bad with men. They could even satisfy me in bed."
Agnes paled slightly, hoping the conversation wouldnt drift into specifics.
"But something was missing. Always." Her hands flailed in a vague gesture. "Some sort of connection that I found I more than wanted. I needed it. And by the time I really figured out what was right for me I dunno." Her gaze dropped to the table. "It didnt seem like it was worth the effort to convince you of something you were always going to be opposed to." She licked her lips and dared a glance up, realizing her mother had remained unusually silent. "Arent you going to say anything?"
"No," Agnes told her gently. "I think this time I need to do the listening."
A little surprised, Nina gave a quick nod. "I needed some time and space to understand myself. I guess I was a slow learner, Mom, and Im sorry if that somehow gave you an impression that it just wasnt true." She refused to call her brief sexual liaison with Robbies father a "mistake," because it had yielded the light of her life. "It took me a long time to be happy with myself and who I am. But I am happy." And dont forget lonely, her mind whispered, much to her dismay. "Cant you be happy for me?"
Agnes lifted her chin. "I dont want you happy."
Ninas eyes widened and the older woman shocked her daughter by reaching out and gently cupping her chin. Then she gave her an intense, direct stare. "I know I havent acted like it, but I want you more than happy. I want you blissfully happy. So ." She gathered her courage and sent a request for Divine forgiveness in case this wasnt the right thing to do. "My friend Joan has a great niece who is a lesbian. Joan assures me shes a lovely girl, no unsightly piercings. I asked about that. Anyway, shes single and"
Ninas jaw dropped and her hand shot up to forestall her mothers rambling. "Who are you and what have you done with my mother?" she demanded. "Now youre trying to set me up with a woman? Sweet Jesus, Im in the Twilight Zone!" But an incredulous smile was tugging at her coral lips.
Agnes crossed her arms over her ample chest. "Dont act so shocked. It might have taken me 15 years to work up to this, but now that Im here, youre in big trouble, young lady. We should have had this talk years ago, but your visits were so short and every time I broached the subject
Well, things never seemed to go very well."
Nina gave her a pointed look that said "not my fault." And Agnes nodded, accepting the gentle rebuke graciously. Then her hazel eyes twinkled. "The phone just never seemed like a good place for me to hatch my devious plan."
"Oh my God." Nina blinked slowly as the full force of what her mother was saying hit home. "Youre going to check out every woman with jeans and a short haircut in the supermarket and ask them if theyre gainfully employed and single, arent you?"
Agnes leaned forward interestedly. "Is short hair and jeans a secret code for being gay? Ive always wondered how you all knew."
Nina continued to stare at her mother as though shed grown a second head.
Agness brow creased. "But you dont have particularly short" Her gaze suddenly darted downward and her eyes shaped twin moons. One hand moved to her own head while the other went to the neatly pressed denim covering her thigh. "Oh, my. No wonder the checkout girl with the skull tattoo from Lane 3 is always so nice to me!"
Ninas head swung towards the back of the room and waited for the Candid Camera crew to come bursting through her pantry door. "You can come out now," she demanded, her eyes narrowing. "I know youre in there."
Agnes looked towards the back of the room, too. But, of course, there was no one there. Then she focused on Ninas glass. While Ninas attention was on the pantry door, she covertly lifted her daughters glass and delicately sniffed it. "What are you drinking, dear?" She sniffed again, her nose wrinkling. "Alcohol, by any chance?"
Nina turned back and scrubbed her face. "No, but thats not a bad idea," she murmured into her hands, her mind still reeling.
"Are you all right?" Agnes stood and took her daughters hand, squeezing it gently.
Nina sucked in a breath and took stock of herself. "I am." She squeezed back, feeling the unparalleled reassurance of her mothers love that came in the form of a small but strong hand wrapped around hers. "Im just confused. I I dont understand why you havent acknowledged the fact that I was a lesbian for 15 years and now all of a sudden youre playing matchmaker. How am I supposed to react to something like that?" Every ounce of confusion Nina felt showed on her face and in her voice and her mothers heart clenched in response. "I feel like my head is going to explode!"
Agnes sighed, her eyes conveying true regret. "I needed some time and space to understand you, too. I guess I was a slow learner."
Nina made a face at her mother as her own words were lightly tossed back at her. "God, I hate it when you do that."
Agnes allowed a small smile to appear. They were going to be all right. "Its a gift." She leaned over and pressed her lips into her daughters soft hair, kissing the dark blonde head several times before resting her cheek there. "I can see life hasnt given you everything you want from it, Nina. Granted, I dont understand the way you feel you have to live. But whatever it is that you so desperately want I want that for you, too."
A lump grew in Ninas throat and as she blinked, the room began to blur.
"Time for me to go home. You know how I hate driving past dark. Well talk more when you get over the shock of my being reasonable." Another kiss. "Give Robbie a hug for me."
Nina stood and pulled her mother into a tight embrace. "Thanks, Mom," she whispered, hearing a note of hoarseness in her own voice.
Agnes closed her eyes. "Even if we disagree or I dont understand your choices, I love you no matter what. I know I hurt you, but I want things to be better between us. Im so sorry, Nina." She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, struggling to express herself and still maintain her composure. "Moms make mistakes, too," she finally murmured. "You know that, right?"
Silently, Nina nodded. She did know that. One of the many blessings of her becoming a parent herself was the realization that, as impossible at it was to really believe, parents were just people, too, full of imperfections and good and bad choices waiting to be made. "Good night, Mom."
On her way to the door, Agnes tossed her paper napkin into the trash and caught sight of a white card and envelope that had been delivered earlier in the day. "What did that turn out to be?" She carefully extracted the crumpled card from the trash, shaking off several sticky spaghetti noodles as she examined it.
"Hey!" Despite, or perhaps because of, the emotional moment theyd just shared, Ninas temper flared. She marched across the room and stood toe-to-toe with her mother. "I think Im entitled to a little privacy."
Agness eyes widened and she had the good manners to look embarrassed. "Im sorry. I didnt mean"
"No, no." Nina winced. "Its okay." She groaned inwardly, knowing shed overreacted. "Its nothing secret. I apologize for being such a bitch. I dont know whats wrong with me today."
Agnes picked up her purse from the kitchen counter and adjusted the strap on her shoulder. "Youre never a..." she lowered her voice, her lips thinning in disgust, "the b word."
Nina couldnt help but laugh and wonder how well her mother really knew her after all. "Aww, Mom, I wish that were true."
"Youre not yourself today," Agnes allowed thoughtfully, suspecting that whatever was bothering Nina was contained on the mysterious white card. She waited for a moment, hoping that Nina would tell her what was wrong and forcing herself not to read what was in her hand.
The younger woman was well aware of her mothers struggle and she didnt make her wait long. "The card is an invitation from an old a former friend. You probably remember her. Gwen Hopkins? She wants me and some other girls from Hazelwood to get together for a long weekend next month." Nina shook her head, her gaze going a little unfocused. "Shes crazy," she whispered, not realizing shed spoken the words out loud.
"I could come here and watch Robbie so that you could go." An enormous smile exploded onto Agness cheeks. "Id love to, in fact. You dont start work until early November."
"Mom, please ."
"Are all the girls from that club of yours going to be there?"
"Mmm," she hummed softly. That was the real question. Would they all show up? "I doubt it."
"Still, how sweet of Gwen." Agnes nodded her approval. "She always did have good manners, not that those overbearing parents of hers didnt pound them into her." After a bit of one-handed searching, she extracted her keys from her purse. "It would be wonderful for you to have some friends here your own age."
"It would." Nina swallowed thickly and then kicked herself for feeling the mixture of anxiety and anticipation that flooded her belly at the thought of the Mayflower Club reuniting, but mostly at the thought of laying eyes on Jacie again. "But it doesnt matter, because Im not going."
Agness thin eyebrows lifted. "Why ever not? These are your friends." Confusedly, she shook her head. "You were inseparable as children. Especially you and that Jacie Ann."
A flash of pain swept across Ninas expressive face at the mention of her friends name, but Agnes plowed ahead, oblivious. "At one point your father and I considered clearing out your bedroom and adding another bed. You had so many sleepovers I felt a little guilty about those girls spending all those nights in their raggedy sleeping bags."
Ninas jaw set as she quickly turned away from her mother, busying herself by turning on the faucet, then hunting below the sink for the dish soap. "You cant go home again, Mom. I havent seen any of those women in 20 years. If wed wanted to get in touch before now, we would have." Not quite true. Shed searched for Jacie for several years before giving up completely. "What could we possibly have in common now?"
Agnes made a clucking noise. "What more could you have in common? A shared past is a powerful thing, Nina. Those girls were like sisters to you. Not that Janet wasnt a good sister, but there was such an age gap between you... you never really played together as children."
Nina stood and leaned against the sink, her mind easily skipping past the sounds of running water and Robbies footsteps upstairs to the soft-spoken sister shed lost so many years ago and the friend who had held her so tenderly when she cried.
Nina pressed her face against the glass of Jacies kitchen window and peered inside the modest split-level home. She had to stand on Audrey and Gwens shoulders in order to see inside the high window and even then she had to stretch up on her tippy toes.
With her arms crossed petulantly over her chest, Katy leaned against the house in a cave woman costume, complete with a bone in her hair and a large brown club made from papier-mâché. The day had been sunny and warm enough for shorts, but as the sun disappeared the air took on a typical autumn chill. Katys mother, in a move so evil that Katy could barely contemplate it, had ruined her outfit by forcing her to wear a zip-up-the-front sweatshirt over her fake fur clothing. Shed tried to take the sweatshirt off as soon as she went outside, but Mrs. Schaub had been peeking through the window in anticipation of her daughters deception. Ten minutes of threats later, a thoroughly chastised and partially grounded Katy was still allowed to go trick-or-treating, but to the girls disgust, the sweatshirt was zipped clear up to her chin and safety-pinned closed.
Nina took the rare chance to just look at Jacie unobserved. The group of girls was together so often that it was easy to almost envision them as a pack and forget the strong, individual personalities that populated the club. Jacie was, Nina decided, different looking pretty even, with thick wine-red hair so dark that it almost appeared black except in the direct sunlight and large brown eyes whose corners curled upward mischievously when she smiled. She was tall, but not as tall as Gwen and she always fiddled with her long ponytail when she was nervous.
"Well?" Audrey said impatiently, trying to straighten the enormous purple clown wig that was falling onto her face. "What do you see?"
"Ja-ja-jacie eatin d-dinner. Alone. She wont eat them a-again, I think."
Jacie sat at the kitchen table, dressed in her pirate costume. The slightly grungy plaster cast on her left arm, gotten when shed failed at her most recent world record attempt, detracted from her tattered leggings, sword, and black eye patch. She glared evilly at the large serving of vegetables that was still on her otherwise empty plate, taking the time to occasionally poke at it with her fork.
This was a common battle at the Priest house. Jacie couldnt leave the table until shed cleaned her plate. If she didnt like what was for dinner she would steadfastly refuse to eat it.
Sometimes Mrs. Priest would give in and sometimes Jacie, but tonight her mother had held strong, knowing that Jacie wanted to be turned loose to go trick-or-treating with her friends.
Nina tapped on the window. Jacies scowling face softened into a smile as she got up and with a grunt opened the window. She shivered a little when a blast of cool air poured into the room. "Hi."
Nina grinned. "Hi!"
"Hurry up, Jacie!" Katy called from the hedges below. "Its almost dark!"
Jacie sighed and stuck her head out the window to observe her friends. "Its Brussels sprouts night."
A chorus of sympathetic groans and retching noises met her words.
"Cant you just eat em real fast?" Gwen suggested, thinking that her shoulder would break from Ninas weight.
"No way," Jacie said. "Ill barf."
Katy pushed off from the house. "Pitch em out the window then."
Jacie shook her head. "Last time I did that, my dad found them the next day when he was trimming the bushes and I had to go pick my own switch from the back yard. My butt was striped for a week!"
Nina frowned. Jacie wasnt exaggerating about that. "I could do it," she offered bravely, wobbling a little on the bigger girls shoulders.
Jacies eyes went round. "You could?"
"Y-yes," Nina answered firmly, her knees cold against the bricks. "I like em."
Gwen and Audrey both went "Ewwwww."
"Neato," Katy said, clapping her hands, her mood swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other as it often did. "Hurry up and do it then or all the best candys gonna be gone. Ive already seen Bucky Lee in front of Old Man Kresslers house dressed like Frankenstein and eating a big bag of Sugar Babies."
Jacie digested this information with a dour look. There was no way that Bucky should be getting candy while she was stuck in her kitchen. She regarded Nina seriously. "You really like Brussels sprouts, Nina? Because I am not eating them," she said stubbornly. "You guys can go on without me."
"Aww... Jacie," Gwen moaned.
"No," Nina answered quickly. "I me-mean yes. I like em. Really."
Jacie stared at her for several seconds before grinning broadly and dashing back for her plate. She snatched it up off the table, then poked her head out of the kitchen to make sure one of her parents wasnt on the way back for a cup of coffee or another slice of pie. "Here ya go." She held out the plate.
Nina lifted a hand but began to sway dangerously. "Whoooa. I c-cant reach them."
"She needs to hold onto the trellis or shell fall," Gwen panted, trying to save time by explaining things on Ninas behalf.
A look of indecision flickered across Jacies face.
"Just put em in my m-mouth." Nina opened wide and waggled a pink tongue
Jacie nodded quickly and picked up a large, soggy Brussels Sprout between two fingers. "Uck!" She turned the same gray/green color as the mushy vegetable when Nina happily chomped it to pieces, gulped, then opened her mouth for another bite.
Gwen, Audrey, and Katy wholeheartedly cheered her on, forgetting that they were supposed to be quiet as they hid in the shadows of Jacies house.
When shed swallowed the last bite, Nina licked her lips and signaled for Audrey and Gwen to let her down. Katy moved quickly behind her to help her to the ground.
Jacie let out a triumphant whoop and climbed out of the kitchen window and down the trellis like a one-armed monkey, hampered, but still agile. "Thanks, Nina!"
"No problem," Nina said shyly, her face heating. She was so proud of herself that she was about ready to bust.
Gwen pointed upward. "What about the window, Jacie?" The wind changed directions and she caught the strong whiff of coffee and what she thought was chipped beef on toast.
Jacie peered back towards her house and the window shed forgotten to close on her way out. She shrugged. "Doesnt matter. It was too hot in there anyway and this will get out the smell of green mush."
The girls laughed and half-walked, half-skipped down the sidewalk. Porch lights were just being flipped around the neighborhood and the eerie, glowing smile of jack-o-lanterns lit most front steps. Leaves chased each other in driveways and the cool wind gusted fitfully, rustling them and rattling branches.
Jacie pulled out a large pillowcase that shed stuffed into the waist of her pants, fluffing it out the best she could with one hand as she walked.
"You think thatll hold enough?" Katy teased, eyeing the pink pillowcase with interest.
"Youre just jealous." Jacie grinned. "Heh." Then Gwen caught her eye. "What are you supposed to be dressed as?"
Gwen gave her friend an indignant snort and fingered the satin sash that was draped across her shoulder. She was wearing an ill fitting puffy dress and a rhinestone tiara. "Miss Missouri, of course."
Jacie stepped closer and squinted.
Gwen held out the sash that actually read "Miss Missouri."
"Figures," Jacie murmured with a smirk.
"Lets start here," Audrey suggested, readying her bag. "Last year Mrs. Foster gave out popcorn balls."
"Big ones!" Katy agreed, humming her approval.
All the girls but Nina trotted up the sidewalk to the first house. Gwen rang the doorbell.
Jacie noticed that Nina wasnt with them; she turned towards the tattered hobo, who was staring down the street. Curious, she trotted back to her and looked in the same direction, pale eyes were riveted. "Wow!"
A police car, red lights flashing sat in the driveway of a house about a block down the street.
Jacie turned to Nina. "Is that coming from your house?"
"I-I dont think so." Her chin began to quiver. "B-but maybe. I dunno."
Even in the dim light, Jacie could see Ninas heart beating in her throat. "Cmon, guys!" Jacie motioned for Gwen, Katy, and Audrey to join them, and the girls took off sprinting down the sidewalk with Gwen lagging behind in her fancy dress.
Nina skidded to a stop in her yard, her breath coming in soft pants. Her eyes were wide and glassy, and Audrey instantly wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulder. They could hear voices inside the house, but the girls were frozen in the face of what they might find if they went inside.
They stared warily at the cruiser in the driveway.
Nina looked as though she would burst into tears long before she made it to her front door. Police captured crooks and bad guys. And there were none of those in her family, so there was no good reason for the police to be at her house.
Jacie swallowed and took Ninas hand, leading her up the sidewalk. "Cmon, Nina. Maybe your dad caught a bank robber or something?"
Nina turned hopeful pale eyes in her friends direction. "Ya think?"
Jacie shrugged. "Could be. A regular guy helped catch a criminal on MacMillan and Wife just last week."
Katy, Gwen, and Audrey exchanged worried glances as they trailed after their friends.
When they reached the front steps, Nina could hear a police officer speaking in low, soothing tones. The front door was wide open and through the screen door she caught sight of her mother sobbing hysterically and a group of people gathering around her in comfort. Ninas stomach lurched.
Even under her dirty hobo makeup, Jacie could see that Nina had gone pale as a sheet.
The smaller girls feet froze. "No! I-I-" Nina shook her head wildly. She dropped the broom stick with a kerchief tied on the end that made her hobo pack in order to grasp the porch railing with both hands. "I dont wanna g-go inside!"
The other girls soaked in her fear like little sponges, the flashing lights illuminating their frightened faces. It wasnt long before the sound of sniffles filled the air.
"Ill go see what it is," Jacie offered, not knowing what else to do. "Is that okay?" She searched Ninas face and received a wary but pathetically grateful nod in response.
Jacie gulped down her fear and reached for the screen door with a shaky hand. Once inside, all adult eyes turned her way. There were several seconds of utter silence where she felt as though she might melt into a puddle. Then she said, "Ni" she had to stop and clear her throat so that her voice wouldnt shake. Whatever this was, it was bad. Very bad. "Ninas outside." She glanced around the room and the mournful faces looking back at her caused her stomach to twist painfully.
At her words, the noise in the room resumed as quickly as it had stopped. A horrible keening noise was coming from Ninas mother, who was bent at the waist and jerkily swaying back and forth like a screen door in the wind. Ninas father had a large hand resting lightly on his wifes back. He was staring off into space and standing so stiffly that he looked as though he might crumble into dust with the slightest breeze. Several neighbors that Jacie recognized stood around looking uncomfortable and talking quietly to each other and the officer. She heard the words "party" and "balcony" several times but couldnt make out much more than that.
Two older policemen entered the front door and a heavy-set man with several yellow stripes on his sleeve growled at the younger cop for attracting the attention of the entire neighborhood. The red-faced young man quickly apologized to Mr. and Mrs. Chilton and ran past Jacie on his way to turn off the squad cars flashing lights. Jacie began to tug nervously on her ponytail while she waited for something to happen. She was about to go back outside when several milling neighbors stepped aside and the room parted to allow a slim woman with a pointy chin and salt and pepper hair worn in a bun to make her way through the crowded living room.
As the woman drew closer, Jacie could see that her cheeks were wet and her eyes bloodshot. "Im Imogene Chilton, Ninas grandmother," she said gently, trying to give Jacie a comforting smile and failing miserably. "Is Nina outside, dear?"
Dumbly, Jacie nodded and Imogene patted her on the shoulder with a bony hand as she moved past her. She followed Imogene into the damp night air and stood by silently as the old woman knelt down on the sidewalk and explained in a soft, quivering voice that Janet, Ninas college-aged sister, had fallen from the fourth floor balcony of a friends apartment earlier that evening. The young woman had died on the way to the hospital.
Nina burst into tears and flew into her grandmothers waiting arms.
It wasnt long before Audrey was crying almost as loudly as Nina. Gwen and Katy, with tears in their eyes, shifted nervously from one foot to the other, wishing they were any place else on earth but here. Jacie stood there behind Ninas grandmother, unable to tear her eyes off her friend, her heart hurting like it never had before, a sick feeling burning in the pit of her stomach. Shed never known anyone who had died. Not that shed ever done much more than say "hi" to Janet, but Nina was one of her best friends, and that was close enough for her. She reached for her ponytail again and tugged on it nervously.
After a moment, Imogene drew her face up from Ninas tear-dampened neck and focused on Katy, Gwen, and Audrey. A touch of wistfulness entered world-weary eyes before rapidly being replaced by sorrow. "Why dont you girls go on trick-or-treating," she said kindly, patting Ninas slender back as she spoke. "Nina will be fine."
The girls gave her a doubtful look, their gazes flickering back and forth between Nina and the old woman.
"Go on," Imogene prodded, the movement of her hand shifting from a pat to a soothing circular motion "Its a sin for young people to waste special nights like this one, especially since there isnt much that you can do here."
Katy and Gwen nodded, more than happy for the reprieve. Audrey looked slightly guilty for wanting to bolt, but she wasnt burdened with the feeling for long, however, and she quickly gave Nina a sad wave as she hurried to catch up with her friends. The girls made their way down the sidewalk, their step devoid of the liveliness it had had only moments before.
A group of goblins and witches stood at the end of the driveway trying to decide if there would be candy amidst all the chaos. But the police cars spooked them enough so that they hurried past the house and ran to catch up to the girls who were now crossing the street.
Tired eyes swung in Jacies direction. "Arent you going?" Imogene asked quietly, straightening to her full height and letting out a soft groan as her spine popped into place.
Stubbornly, Jacie lifted her jaw. "No, maam."
A fresh wave of tears spilled onto wrinkled cheeks and Imogenes lips twitched into something resembling a smile. "Good." She petted Ninas head, then a gentle hand moved down to lift the girls chin. She gazed into lost, red-rimmed eyes. "Why dont we go inside, dear?"
"No!" Nina clutched at her desperately, burrowing her face in her dress and looking as though shed crawl under her grandmothers skin if she could.
"Shh . Dont worry. You can go straight to your room and your friend can come, too. Your mother and father will need to go to the hospital soon."
Nina pulled away, her cheeks glistening in the amber porch light. Her befuddlement was clear. The hospital was for sick, but alive people. "But"
Imogene instantly recognized the source of Ninas confusion. "The ambulance drivers tried their best to save Janet, honey. They couldnt, but they took her to the hospital anyway. Your parents can go see her there and then take her to Parsons Funeral Home. Do you remember it? You went there for your Great Uncle Eugenes funeral."
It had been more than three years since Ninas Uncle Eugene had died and the details surrounding his death were fuzzy at best. What stuck out most in her mind was that it was the first time shed seen grownups cry. She thought hard, then grasped hold of a faint memory she could share. "The p-place with all the flowers and the or-organ? Where we said prayers?"
Imogene nodded her approval at Ninas excellent memory, especially pleased that shed remembered the praying. "Thats the place. Ill stay here to look after you so your parents can leave." Tenderly, she wiped the little girls cheeks. "Your mother and father are very upset, Nina. If they dont take time to be with you tonight it isnt because they dont love you. You need to understand that."
But Im upset, too! Ninas mind wailed. But outwardly she remained silent in the face of her grandmothers words.
"Do you understand?"
Jacies eyes flickered to Nina, and she wondered what shed say. Shed seen her friend glance longingly at her mother through the door and knew Nina had only barely kept herself from rushing to the womans side, despite the fact that she was afraid to go inside.
Nina didnt understand at all, but she swallowed hard and mumbled a soft "y-yes" because she could tell that was what her grandmother wanted to hear.
Imogene smiled gently. "Thats my brave girl."
It only took them a few moments to be shuffled through the gathered people and into Ninas dark bedroom. They both sat down on the bed, not knowing what to say. Only a handful of heartbeats had passed when the bedroom door opened slowly and Agnes Chilton came inside.
"Nina?" she whispered brokenly, her throat raw from crying.
"Oh, Mommy," Nina jumped off her bed and propelled herself into her mothers legs, wrapping her entire body around her much the way shed done with her grandmother. "I knew you wouldnt l-l-leave without say-saying goodbye!"
Jacie smiled in relief and felt a twinge of jealousy even under these terrible circumstances. She wasnt at all sure her mother or father would have come to her if the situations were reversed. Her father forever had his face in the newspaper and her mother seemed to be more concerned with her social life within their church than anything else.
Jacie could see Ninas father standing in the doorway, watching his wife and daughter with hollow eyes. But the man made no move to be part of the physical comfort nor to join in the softly spoken words of love and compassion. His tear-filled gaze lifted to meet Jacies and he gave her a curt nod. Jacie took it to mean she had permission to stay the night.
Finally, Mr. Chilton whispered something into Agness ear and, with a tender pat on Ninas head, the adults were gone, leaving the girls alone in the room where no one had bothered to turn on the light.
The dark wasnt so scary when they were together and the window provided enough light to see into the shadows.
"Are are you okay, Nina?" It seemed like a stupid question and Jacie kicked herself for not being able to think of anything better to say.
"I-I dont think so."
"Oh." Jacie felt like she was floundering. "Do you wanna take off your makeup?" Ninas tears had painted stripes through the black makeup and the haphazard effect actually made Nina look more like a real hobo than she had before, but Jacie knew its cause and hated it. The white streaks of pale skin nearly glowed in the blue-tinted moonlight and she thought idly that Ninas freckles had somehow disappeared.
Nina nodded and accepted Jacies pillowcase/would be trick-or-treat bag. Without water the cloth only served to smear the makeup around her cheeks, but neither girl particularly cared and the attempt to get clean was half-hearted at best.
Silently, Nina pulled her nightgown from her top drawer while Jacie shrugged out of her Halloween costume. She let Jacie pick from her pajamas; the auburn-haired girl selected a baby-blue nightshirt with a picture of Mickey Mouse on the front. She didnt particularly like Mickey, so she turned the shirt inside out.
They crawled into Ninas twin bed together, and Nina snuggled close, wanting and receiving unconditional comfort from her friend. Jacie, she realized, acted tough, but when it came down to it, she was kind and gentle and it was a shame that no one knew that but her and maybe the other girls in their club.
"Will your m-mom get mad?" Nina whispered into the dark, holding Jacie close and trying not to think of her sister in a coffin like Dracula, or whether it hurt to die, or if something extra creepy happened to a person who died on Halloween.
Jacie pulled up the bed sheet, mindful of its incredible power; knowing that nothing could hurt them if it was pulled all the way up to their eyes. "When we were on our way to your room I told your granny my phone number." Her breath caused the sheet to billow in front of her mouth. "She said shed call my mom for me. My folks wont care if I stay." It would be, Jacie realized, the first time shed ever stayed the night here without Katy or Gwen or Audrey being here, too.
"Ill n-never see Ja-janet again."
There was a long pause before Jacie tried to be convincing and said, "Maybe in heaven you will."
Nina hitched herself on one elbow, worried eyes boring into Jacie. "You don-dont think there is one?"
"There could be, I guess," Jacie allowed slowly, not wanting to dash Ninas obvious hopes. She figured she was going to be worm food, just like animals were when they died. Plus, shed stopped believing anything her preacher said when shed caught her mother having to slap the old mans hand away when they were supposed to be in the church office counting the weekly donations.
"Hmm " Jacies answer wasnt all shed hoped for, but it was better than an outright no. Ninas heart began to pound as she considered the possibility of truly never seeing her sister again. And someday her parents would die, too. And all her friends. It was too much and her chest jerked with a sob, startling Jacie with her sudden outburst. "Im sorry I wrecked Hal-Hal-Halloween!"
Helplessly, she started to cry again and Jacie felt the salty tears dampen her nightshirt. Unbidden, Jacies own tears came, but it was dark and Nina was crying so hard herself that she didnt feel embarrassment. "Its okay, Nina." Her chest felt heavy and she adjusted her casted arm, moving it in case that was the problem. It didnt help and she tried to think of something to make Nina feel better. Anything. "Its not your fault."
"I know," Nina sobbed out. "But I-Im still s-sad."
Jacie didnt tell her not to cry. If shed had a sister who died, she figured shed be sad, too. So instead, she cried with her friend for a very long time.
The moon hung higher in the sky by the time the last of the snuffles had turned into soft hiccups and then even those melted into quiet breaths as an exhausted sleep began to steal over them. "Im sorry about your sister," Jacie finally whispered, realizing she hadnt said it yet, though shed been thinking it all night. Her voice was a little raspy and her dark eyes trained themselves on the window as she spoke. "She was really cool, right?"
Nina nodded a little and this time when her eyes slid closed they stayed that way. She felt safe with her head resting on Jacies shoulder and the stomachache shed had since shed seen the police car in her driveway was beginning to ease. Her whispered voice was slurred with sleep. "Almost as cool as you, Jacie."
In Ninas mind her sister would forever be a teenager and Jacie, no matter what, would always be her hero.
The silence in the room stretched out for a few moments as Agnes and Nina stayed lost in their own thoughts.
It was Agnes who was first to pull herself from the past. "Well
" She exhaled slowly and let the memories fade firmly back into the recesses of her mind. "I hope you reconsider meeting with your old friends." She jingled her keys lightly. "But its your social life, honey. Well, at least that part of it is yours. The romantic part Im meddling inwhether you want me to or not."
Nina gave her a rueful, lopsided grin. "My good luck just never stops."
Unrepentant, Agnes grinned back. "Too true."
Nina retrieved the last dinner plate from the table and shook her head over the pile of Brussels sprouts still sitting there.
"Why do you bother fixing them? Youve hated Brussels sprouts since you were a baby."
"I do hate them. But Robbie loves the nasty things so I always put a little on my plate too and try to stomach one or two." Nina smiled to herself. "Its a small price to pay for someone I love." Moving a glass aside, she placed the plate on the counter and approached her mother. "Good night, Mom."
The phone rang just as she was kissing her mothers cheek.
Agnes waved her off. "Shoo Go get that before they hang up. Ill stop by tomorrow afternoon."
Nina nodded and offered a final wave before turning off the faucet and running for the phone in the hallway. Even after unpacking every box, she was still missing two phones, a planter, her ice cube trays, and all her white socks. The mysteries of moving never ceased to amaze her.
She leaned against the wall and wiped her wet hands on her t-shirt, wishing her grandmother had believed in dishwashers as she pressed the receiver to her ear. "Hello?"
She was met with a long silence. Having run out of patience, Nina was about to hang up when she heard a throat being gently cleared and then what sounded like a dry swallow. "Hello?" she tried one last time, now listening intently out of pure curiosity.
Blue-green eyes slammed shut as the achingly familiar burr traveled through her ear to pierce her heart. Her knees gave way, and she slid down the wall to the floor, her bottom thumping loudly against the cool wood.
"Nina, is that you?"
She had to swallow a few times before she could speak. "Yeah, Jace," she finally said softly, her world turned upside down. Again. "Its me."
A surge of panic struck Nina so hard she wasnt even aware of what she was doing. "I cant talk now." She slammed the phone down, panting. It took her only a few seconds for her to regret what shed done. She moaned. "Brilliant, Nina."
The phone rang again, causing her to jump. She held her breath and with a trembling hand, placed it to her ear, a million unanswered questions roaring in her head. "H-Hello?"
Nina exhaled heavily, not sure whether to cry from frustration or relief. The voice on the other end of the line wasnt Jacies, but it was still as familiar as her own shadow. "Katy Schaub?"
"Are you surprised?"
Nina swallowed thickly. "Yeah. You could say that."
Return to the Academy