They were still chatting when Jonathan walked into the kitchen a while later.
“Good. You two have met.”
M shifted in her chair as searching eyes roved over her face. The look was almost—intimate. As if it was his fingers drifting across her skin, not his eyes.
It made her spine tingle. Made her breath catch. Made her nervous—or something.
Finally, he spoke. “Are you okay?”
It was so unfair. He stood there in jeans and a pale blue golf shirt, looking oh so perfect. Like he’d stepped off the pages of a magazine. His wavy hair was either wet or he’d styled it with some glossy sort of gel. Since he didn’t seem to be the stylin’ type, she weighed in on the wet side. And as he walked by, she caught the scent of his cologne or aftershave. Whatever it was—it was sensuous. Her nose picked out citrus warmed with something spicy as it followed him. Hmm. Did she catch a woodsy hint as well? Surely not all three. If so, a paradox that certainly worked for her. Was it a reflection of the man within?
She turned her head—her nose—away and looked down at herself. She looked like a train wreck. Again.
Yeah? So why do you care? He’s nothing more than your boss. Try to remember that.
“I’m fine, thanks. Are we still on for this afternoon?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
He grabbed a cup out of the cupboard, poured himself a coffee, then leaned back against the counter. “She’s out back having her swimming lesson. We’re heading to Centre Island sometime after lunch. Does that work for you?”
“Yes, that’s fine.” She glanced at Mrs. Brickman. “Thanks for the company. Would you both excuse me? I need to go call my parents.”
Mrs. Brickman reached over and touched the back of her hand. “Remember what I said, dear.”
M nodded. “I will. Thank you.” She looked at Jonathan. “Just give me a holler when you’re ready to go.”
She escaped. Although what she was leaving behind was probably better than what she was about to face. She hadn’t talked to her parents in years, and this conversation would be more difficult than most.
Oh, well. Suck it up and get it over with.
She paused at the bottom of the grand staircase. She’d never be able to look at a set of stairs the same way. Somehow in the last two days, stairs had taken on allegorical proportions. Yesterday she’d stood at the base of the steps outside assuring herself she could do what had to be done. And here she was again. Standing, gathering strength for the climb, shoring up her backbone as she mentally faced down a chore she’d rather not deal with.
She took a breath, put her head down, and climbed the stairs.
Her room had an alcove by the window. At this time of day the sun shone through the glass and landed on the tub chair placed there. She sat, with her cell phone in her hand, trying to gain solace or vitality from the sun’s rays. She wasn’t sure which. Probably both.
Finally, unable to put it off any longer, she dialed her parent’s number. Even though she hadn’t called them for years, she didn’t stop to wonder if they were in the same place. Her parents would never have the initiative or the ambition to move. They lived in the same spot they’d lived in when she was born. They’d just upgraded the trailer to a new—make that slightly newer—model. If they’d paid their phone bill, this was the number to call.
Her mother answered on the third ring. “‘lo?”
“Hi, Mom. It’s M.”
She shuddered in disgust when a phlegmy smoker’s cough assaulted her ear. Unbelievable! Were they still wasting what little money they cheated the government out of on two packs a day each?
She wondered how many children phoned their mothers and were asked that question. Unless a parent had some sort of dementia, it was unforgivable as far as M was concerned. And it wasn’t that her mother wasn’t familiar with the name M. She’d started calling herself that when she was nine. She’d made everyone else call her that as well.
“Mother, I said it’s M.”
“Oh. Whadya want? We ain’t got no money to give you if that’s why you’re calling.”
The sun wasn’t helping. No solace here.
“That’s not why I’m calling. I’m in Toronto. I got here yesterday and found out that Summer is dead. I thought you should know.”
During the next few seconds—eternity—of silence, M felt tension ratchet up her body. What had happened? Had her mother hung up?
“D’ ya need us to come there?”
M nearly dropped the phone. An offer of support?
Tears began to sprout. That was the most thoughtful thing her mother had ever said to her. Maybe her parents had changed. Her heart warmed as endless possibilities swam through her head.
She could nearly hear the whoosh as tension drained from her body. The steel left her spine, and she relaxed into the chair.
“Cause we know she was married to that rich old man. Did she leave us any money? Do we have to come see lawyers or sign some papers to get it?”
M sat up, ramrod straight all over again.
How could she have been so stupid? She had a lifetime’s worth of experience where her parents were concerned. Why had she foolishly let herself believe they might have changed?
Charlie liked to tell her that not everything was black or white. Well, it was in her life.
“M? Answer me.”
“There is no money, Mother. I just thought you might like to know that one of your daughters is dead.”
“Whadya mean there’s no mo…”
M ended the call.
She sat there, staring at the opulence surrounding her, refusing to cry. She’d cried over her sister, and that was okay, but she categorically would not cry over her parents.
She was a miles away from them, literally and figuratively. This room—this house—underscored that. Much more important than the means of life though, was the way she lived her life. Her parents may have gifted her with it, but she was the one who’d, all on her own, made something out of it.
But what about genetics? Could she outrun her roots? Was she destined to become her mother? She didn’t want to believe that, but she was afraid she’d add veracity to the belief that children are a product of their environment.
Again, she thought of what Charlie often told her. There were exceptions to every rule. That everything couldn’t be black or white. Life—living—demanded and created the grays in between. But she had a hard time believing that. Her life had taught her about the starkness of extremes, not the forgiveness of in betweens.
Last night she’d accepted that part of the reason for her roaming was a search for home, for family. The flipside? She was running as fast as she could from the home and family she’d started life with. Because she knew—she’d known as a young girl—that there might be truth to the claim that she could be nothing more than her environment taught her to be. One of those poor, white trash, McCallister girls.
If she was going to paint herself into a corner she couldn’t get out of, then so be it. But she hoped it wasn’t the corner she’d spent a lifetime working her way out of. With any luck, it would be the corner she constantly strived to reach.
M snorted. Luck? She didn’t believe in luck. It was all about hard work.
She pushed herself out of the chair, and on the way to the bathroom, dropped her cell phone back in her purse.
After brushing her teeth, and washing her hands, she looked at herself in the mirror. Pushed her shoulders back and made a promise to herself.
She wouldn’t reflect on the conversation with her mother and let it get her down. She was done with looking at the past. She’d be positive and use that phone call as a prod. Whenever she needed a kick in the pants over the coming months, whenever she lost sight of her reasons for being here in the first place, she’d remind herself of her motivation. She wasn’t her mother—or her father. She had goals and ambition, and she was going to make something of her life. And maybe, just maybe, one day she’d have a family she could be proud of.
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