I give Mom a small smile back and nod, and she moves swiftly down the hall. I hear her answer the phone and then sing out, “Oh, Gretchen! Oh, so nice to hear from – wait, wait. Start over. What happened?”
I crane my neck around the bathroom wall and look down the hallway to where Mom stands grasping the phone to her ear in the kitchen. She hunches her body over slightly, her back to me, and is listening intently.
Inside, I cringe. Gretchen is Billy’s wife, and whenever she calls, drama ensues.
“Gretchen, please calm down. You can do this. No… yes, I know it’s difficult… no, I don’t know how… yes, I do know what it’s like….” Mom interjects occasionally in hushed tones.
Although I’m curious about what Gretchen’s dramatic story is about this time, I quickly sneak across the hall to my bedroom and quietly shut the door behind me. I do not want any part in my sister-in-law’s latest antics – especially not today.
Alone in my room, I attach my iPod to its speakers and flop back onto my bed, staring at the ceiling. Kelly Clarkson begins to sing, and I try to focus on the lyrics and not my mother’s muffled voice in the hallway.
Sighing, I roll onto my side and stare at the photos that line my nightstand – me as a 5-year-old at Disney Land perched on my father’s shoulders, a mouse-ears popsicle in my hand and my then white-blonde hair matted to the ice cream smeared across my face; a recent photo of me and Katie at the beach, our arms entwined; a family portrait snapped at Billy’s winter wedding in Connecticut, a little more than a year before he died.
I pick up the last photo and hold it inches from my face, my breath making steamy half-dollars on its glass surface. In it, my brother stands proudly in the center, a perfect white-toothed smile on his tanned face. His black hair is slicked back and gleaming, his chiseled jaw clean-shaven. Standing there in his designer tuxedo, he looks like he could be an actor arriving at the Oscar’s red carpet.
Next to him, Gretchen stands clinging to his arm, staring up at him in pure adoration. She has definitely dressed the part of the princess for her special day – a huge, billowing ball gown engulfs her tiny frame, and her beaded corset shines like a sequined beacon. Her long blonde hair is pulled into a classic bun on top of her head, surrounded by a diamond princess crown and delicate veil that trails the floor behind her.
To Billy’s left, Mom stands proudly in a flowing printed skirt and long-sleeved black top woven with strands of shimmering thread. Her right arm crosses in front of her body and her hand holds tightly to her son’s elbow. The smile on her face is enigmatic. On Gretchen’s right, my father, in the tux he wore to his own wedding 25 years before. It hangs loosely on his tall, thin frame, but his carefree stance gives him a casual elegance that somehow makes him look like a rugged James-Bond type. His strawberry blond hair has a tousled, bed-head look, and his lean, weather-beaten face wears a lopsided, yet sincere, smile.
And finally, standing almost an entire foot to my father’s right, is 9-year-old me in an oversized black velvet jumper and pink turtleneck. With my long, unruly hair pushed back off my face under a shiny pink headband, and visible runs in my white stockings betraying the rowdy game of tag I had just played with my cousins in the church basement, I look like the ugly stepsister to Gretchen’s Cinderella. Or maybe one of the little mice who runs around the castle and stirs up trouble.
Even at 9, I think, I didn’t fit in to this family.
Just then Mom raps hard on the door three times and opens it before getting a response. I quickly shove the photo underneath my pillow and sit up to face Mom, whose worried face makes me instantly anxious.
“What is it?”
Mom reaches over and turns off my iPod. She sits down on the edge of the bed. After taking a deep breath, she says, “We have to go to Connecticut.”