“Haven’t you been moping around long enough?”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
The older woman standing on my front porch straightened herself to her full height, which was none too high. The best way to describe her was round—round face, round glasses, round bosom, round belly. Her silver-grey hair was cut short, and it ‘poofed’ around her face like a dandelion gone to seed. She looked like a stereotypical grandmother, except for her sharp eyes, which peered out at me from behind black-rimmed frames. She smelled like a combination of mothballs and chamomile. “I said, haven’t you been moping around long enough?”
“Uh,” I wasn’t sure how to answer her. It was true I hadn’t been doing much other than recovering from what Stefan, my now-estranged husband, had done to me, but I had no idea how in the world she would know this. “Do I know you?”
She snorted in exasperation. “Of course you do. You’re Becca, Charlie’s niece. Where on earth are your manners? Are you going to invite me in or what?”
“Well, yeah, but ... who are you?”
She continued staring at me with those sharp little bird eyes, clearly waiting for the invitation. I still had no idea who Pat was but found myself relenting under her gaze. She did seem harmless enough. I backed away from the door so she could come in. She snorted again, plainly miffed at how long it had taken, and bustled her way straight to the kitchen. I hurried after her.
“Why don’t you have water simmering?” she exclaimed as she entered the kitchen. “Did you forget everything Charlie taught you?”
Before I could properly frame an answer, she began banging away in the kitchen, filling the tea kettle with water and bringing out the teapot and cups.
I moved into the kitchen to help her. “So, you knew my aunt?”
She slammed a drawer shut. “Of course I knew your aunt. Who in this town didn’t know her? She treated me for years—thyroid and insomnia. You probably saw all of that in her files.”
Oh. So that’s what this was about. Since the whole blowup with Stefan, I’ve had various folks reach out to me, assuming I would be taking over Aunt Charlie’s business. But, quite honestly, I was still figuring out what I wanted to do.
Her birdlike eyes studied me for a moment. “You don’t remember me, do you? I watched you grow up, you know. Saw you every summer you were here.”
“I think I remember you,” I said, even though it was a lie. Great. Yet another memory lost to me. “It was just a long time ago.”
She let out a rusty chuckle. “Not that long ago. But I guess for someone your age, it seems that way.” She went back to digging in my drawers for tea. “Is this all you have?” she snapped, holding up one of my store-bought boxes.
I swallowed. “For now.”
“Hmph.” Muttering something about how she could have stayed home for store-bought tea, she prepared a couple of mugs for us and took them to the butcher-block table.
I found myself trailing after her, feeling like things had somehow gotten flipped around, reversing our roles. She was the host and I was the guest. But as I sat down in front of her, I felt the sadness that was never very far from my consciousness rise up inside me, nearly swamping me in its intensity.
She reminded me of Aunt Charlie. This is precisely how Aunt Charlie would have acted.
I so wished she was the one making tea for us.
Pat pushed the mug over to me, spilling a little in the process. I took it and held it, focusing on its warmth in my hands to keep the tears from spilling over.
God, I was still such an emotional mess. I was starting to wonder if I would ever feel like myself again or if what happened had permanently destroyed some essential piece of me.
Pat blew noisily over the tea to cool it. “You haven’t answered me yet.”
I blinked at her. “Sorry. What haven’t I answered?”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you finished moping?”
I picked up my tea and held it near my lips, but I didn’t drink. Instead, I breathed in the scent of oranges and cinnamon. “I didn’t realize I was moping.”
“Well, what else would you call it? There’s no tea in here and no one’s heard from you. We’re all waiting for you to get up and running.”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t know if I’m going to be starting Aunt Charlie’s business up again.”
She looked aghast. “Of course you are! What else are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
She put her tea down with a bang, sloshing more of it on the table. “What are you talking about? You have the gift! Charlie always said you’d take over.”
I closed my eyes. Thanks, Aunt Charlie. It would have been nice if you had mentioned that to me. “She and I never talked about it. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do.”
Pat waved her hand at me. “Pshaw. You don’t need to figure anything out. You’re an artist and a healer. You’ve just got to stop moping and get back to work.”
Am I? Pat sounded so confident. I wished I could soak it up.
“I haven’t been the same since I ran out of the tea Charlie made for me. You can start by making me another batch. I haven’t slept right in months.” She began to gather her things and rose to her feet. “You young people, always trying to ‘find yourself’ or some such nonsense. I tell you, in my day, we never had the luxury of all that fooling around. We did what we had to do, and we were happy about it.”
She started toward the door, still berating my generation’s lack of work ethic. I followed, wondering if I should try and interrupt her to let her know I didn’t have a clue how to prepare tea for her (or anyone, really).
As she opened the door, she called over her shoulder, “I’ll be back in a week. That should give you plenty of time to get that tea together.”
“Uh,” I tried to interrupt, but she wasn’t paying any attention. “A week is more than enough time. More than enough. If Charlie was here, she’d have it back in a couple of days. Maybe less. Young people. What are they doing with their time?”
“I don’t know ...” I tried to interrupt as she headed out the door, but she waved a finger at me.
“A week is plenty of time. Bring it to my house when you have it.”
“But I don’t know where you live,” I said, my voice trailing off as I watched her march toward her car.
Good thing I kept Aunt Charlie’s files. I guess it wouldn’t kill me to poke around to see what I could come up with. Creating a tea or two didn’t have to mean I was starting up Aunt Charlie’s business.
I was about to close the door when I saw Daphne walking up the street. I waved and waited for her.
“I suppose you want tea, too,” I said, as I let Daphne in.
“You’re finally making Charlie’s teas?” she asked.
I sighed again as I led her to the kitchen. “You sound like Pat.”
She sat down at the kitchen table. “Oh, is that what she wanted?”
It was amazing how quickly Daphne and I had resumed our close friendship. We first became friends fifteen years ago when I used to spend the summers here with Aunt Charlie, and since I’d returned six weeks ago, we’ve picked right up where we’d left off—almost like there hadn’t been a gap at all. I don’t know what I would have done without her these past few weeks. She’d been my lifeline.
I went to make a fresh cup for Daphne as she fingered the tea bags. “Store-bought tea? Oh, Becca. Tsk, tsk. Pat surely thought Aunt Charlie was rolling in her grave.”
“Something like that.”
Daphne removed her sunglasses and adjusted her reddish-brown ponytail. She had a long, almost horsy face with plain, strong features, a thin mouth and that pale white skin and freckles that are so common in redheads.
“It’s kind of hot for tea,” Daphne said as I put a fresh mug in front of her.
“A little heat never stopped Aunt Charlie.”
Daphne’s lips curled up into a tiny, sad smile. “That’s true.” She picked up her mug to blow on it. “Any news?”
I shook my head. “Stefan still refuses to sign the divorce papers.”
I definitely seconded that.
“What about Chrissy? Has she talked to him yet?”
I bobbed my tea bag a few times before removing it from the mug. “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I would say no.”
Chrissy, Stefan’s sixteen-year-old daughter, and my stepdaughter, had been the unwilling pawn in her father’s scheme to bilk me of an inheritance I didn’t even know I had. Aunt Charlie had left it to me, along with the house. It wasn’t enough to live on for the rest of my life, no–but it would definitely keep the bills paid and food on the table while I figured out what I wanted to do.
At least … it would once it had been restored. Before being arrested, Stefan had managed to drain a chunk of it, and the authorities were still sorting out where he had stashed all the money he stole. I kept telling myself it was all going to be okay—the house was paid for and the small amount of money I did have access to could pay the bills for the next couple of months, which should be more than enough time to get my trust fund sorted out.
As hurtful as Stefan had been to me, it was still nothing compared to what he had done to his daughter. Needless to say, the fact that Chrissy had turned on him in the end didn’t help their father-daughter relationship at all. Even though my case against him was weak and he was actually being held in New York on much more serious charges, Stefan wasn’t someone who would ‘forgive and forget.’
“Are you seeing her?” Daphne asked.
I nodded. “Tomorrow. She’s coming over to spend the night.”
Daphne opened her mouth before closing it firmly and sipping her tea instead.
I appreciated her silence. We had had this argument around Chrissy many times before.
In the couple of weeks since the night Stefan had been arrested, Daphne had been my biggest supporter and cheerleader. She brought me food, held me as I cried, and helped me remove every reminder of Stefan from the house. She and Mia, my other best friend, had even arranged to have a shaman energetically cleanse the house. She was my rock.
But, when it came to Chrissy, we sat squarely on opposite sides. While she could understand why I didn’t necessarily want to have the book thrown at Chrissy, it made no sense to Daphne why I was willing to re-establish a relationship with my stepdaughter.
Mia, another of my close friends from fifteen years ago, had been the one to help me with Chrissy. Just like my friendship with Daphne, Mia and I started right back up where we had left off. Unlike Daphne, though, Mia understood why I wanted to rebuild my relationship with Chrissy. She had helped navigate the legal system to find a family willing to let Chrissy stay with them until she graduated from high school. They also didn’t mind accommodating my request to work on things with my stepdaughter.
Honestly, I couldn’t really explain why I wanted to continue being Chrissy’s stepmother. Nor did I understand the part of me that wouldn’t have minded Chrissy moving back into the house.
Daphne was right. In the beginning, she had conspired with her father to steal my inheritance. She had hurt me, physically, emotionally, and mentally. And, it was true—I had no guarantees she wouldn’t try it again.
But she was also the one who saved me, and I had no intention of giving up on her.
That didn’t mean she wasn’t giving up on herself. The last time I had seen her, she was like a shadow of the girl she once was. She looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks. Her clothes were wrinkled and stained and hung on her now too-thin body awkwardly. But, worst of all, she refused to look at me. She mostly just stared down at the ground, or off into the distance.
Margot, her foster mother, told me Chrissy was like that all the time, now. Barely eating, barely talking unless answering a direct question. They had started taking her to a therapist.
Chrissy’s lack of family made me think of mine. Growing up, I had Aunt Charlie. She loved me and believed in me. I had my parents, of course, and two brothers who were quite a bit older. But that hadn’t stopped my parents from trying one last time for a little girl. They must have been so joyful when I was born, their dreams having come true.
But somehow, as much as I had longed to be close to my mother, I always had this vague sense that I wasn’t the daughter she had longed for—that I was a disappointment. I could never shake the feeling that my mother would have preferred a different little girl.
With Aunt Charlie, however, I never felt that way. I always felt loved and accepted and supported when I was with her.
Chrissy didn’t have an Aunt Charlie. Chrissy didn’t have anyone. And I would be damned if I didn’t do what I could to be the one person in her corner.
Daphne was talking but I had missed what she said. I asked her if she could repeat it.
“I asked what you’re doing Saturday night. A group of us are getting together.”
“Um. I’m not sure,” I said. “Who’s going?” As much as I was ready for some fun—hell, I was long overdue for some fun!—I also had no desire to run into Daniel and his fiancé.
I had only seen Daniel once in the past three weeks and that was in passing at the courthouse. He was clearly on duty so a hasty wave in my direction was our only interaction. I had done my best to steer clear of any social situations where I might run into him. I didn’t think I could bear seeing him with his fiancé.
Daphne seemed to read my thoughts. “For dinner, it’s just us girls—Mia, Celia, maybe Janey. After dinner, well, who knows? But you can always leave after we eat, if you want.”
I groaned. “Celia? I’m the last person she wants to spend the evening with, I’m sure.”
I had only met Celia once, at a bar a couple of months ago. She was married to Barry, Daniel’s childhood friend. She hadn’t been shy in letting me know what she thought of me.
Daphne waved her hand. “That’s just Celia. She’s like that with everyone. She’ll warm up. Eventually.”
I snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“So, can I count you in?”
I paused, taking a moment to gaze out the window. The marigolds were a fiery golden wave in the late afternoon sun. As painful as it would be to see Daniel and Gwyn together, I was ready to start getting my life back. “Okay,” I said.
“Yes!” Daphne did a little fist pump. “About time we get you out of this house.”
“Oh God, yes,” I said. “I’m ready for some fun. But enough about me. How is your mother doing? Any improvement?”
Daphne’s mother was a recluse. She suffered from numerous confusing aliments, which meant that no doctor yet had been able to come to an accurate diagnosis. I listened to Daphne share the latest challenges—most notably, her mother now had unexplainable knee pain, which not only kept her from sleeping through the night, but also limited her mobility. And that, of course, meant more work for Daphne.
Daphne glanced at the kitchen clock. “Oh, I didn’t realize it was getting so late. I didn’t mean to go on and on.”
“Anytime,” I said. “Not like you haven’t listened to me do the same. Do you want something to take home for dinner? I made a couple of casseroles yesterday with all the zucchini I dug out of the garden. It’s been growing like weeds out there. Do you want one? Then you don’t have to worry about dinner tonight.”
“No, no, I couldn’t.”
“Nonsense.” I headed for the fridge over Daphne’s protests. I wasn’t much of a cook, but there was something healing about spending time in the kitchen making food. It was the same in the garden. And besides, Daphne had done a lot for me over the past few weeks. I was happy to do this small thing for her.
“Well, if you’re sure,” she said. I could see the relief in her eyes as she accepted the casserole. “Thank you, Becca.” I felt for her. I knew she was under a tremendous amount of stress with her mother, even though she rarely complained.
“Of course I’m sure,” I said. “Although I make no promises about how good it is.”
She laughed. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
I walked her to the door, waving as she cut across the yard that led to her home. She waved back before hurrying along the path.
I watched her path long after she disappeared around the corner before softly closing the door. The house was so quiet. The only sound was the ticking of the grandfather clock.
Just like that, I was alone. Rattling around in a cavernous, creaky house with only the ghosts of my past to keep me company.
All by myself. Again.