In Plain Sight

“Gin and tonic, please,” he said to the waiter.

“My, how tame we’ve become in our old age.”

He smiled and turned around. She stood before him, grinning and still looking very much like the 21 year-old girl that had crossed the threshold of the gray building on Fairfax Street so many years ago. But her youthful appearance was in looks only; the woman in front of him brimmed with confidence and strength, a far cry from the terrified, shy girl they met that first day. Back then, their superiors had been–inexplicably in the eyes of most–convinced that Tamara Knight was blessed with the same keen abilities as her deceased mother, the incomparable Pamela Knight, and had recruited Tamara at once for the school. They had been wrong. Mara Knight was a complete neophyte; hardly ready to begin a rigorous training program that would result in a career as one of the Queen’s stable of international espionage agents.  

James stood and met her embrace, reminding himself to hold on just enough, not too long, not too close. Just enough. Of course, his resolve was interrupted by the kiss she placed on his cheek and, as a result, the dizzying aroma of roses and lilacs that she left behind on his skin. He was tempted to hold on to her one beat longer, long enough to communicate everything he had wanted to say since he laid eyes on her fifteen years ago.

He didn’t.

After the embrace, James escorted her to the other side of the booth. Moments later, the waiter re-appeared and took her request for a whiskey, neat.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked her after the waiter departed.

Mara softly chuckled. “Does it seem like I came from somewhere?”

“Absolutely.” He paused to study her, forcing himself to conduct only a surface appraisal and not the kind of intense staring he formerly engaged in when they worked in the same building. “South America, perhaps?”

Her large brown eyes gleamed. “How did you know?”

James pointed toward the sparkling broach on the left shoulder of her olive green dress. It was a flower with dark pink petals and a yellow/cream center.  “I’m venturing that it’s a rendering from the silk floss tree. Native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South America, I believe.”

“Spot on, as always. Two weeks in Argentina. Buenos Aires, specifically.”

Naturally, the details about her time in Buenos Aires would remain unspoken between them. They belonged to the same organization, yes, but the potentiality of traitors meant that there would be no detailed discussion about “work.”  

“Lovely, isn’t it?” she said, lightly touching the broach. “It’s always nice to honor the culture of where you are.”

In the beginning, Mara Knight certainly wasn’t interested in honoring cultures. During a field assignment in Indonesia (they had been assigned together; her first, his umpteenth), James recalled that she had spent more time vomiting on the side of various roads than taking in the culture around them. “My nerves…my nerves are shot,” she kept muttering whenever the truck had to pull over for her. He laughed at the memory.

“Something funny?” she asked.

“You dry-heaving on the side of the road in Jakarta.”

She joined him in laughter, tears eventually twinkling in the corners of her eyes. “Those were the days, weren’t they?”

They had all underestimated her, believing that the terrified, unsure beginner would remain that way. In the end, her mother may not have gifted Mara Knight with those astute abilities she had been famous for, but perhaps she had given her daughter something greater, something she would come to find nearly six months into her training: a tenacious will to succeed. That will led to her surpassing them all, in the end.

“I miss us working together, James.”

His knee-jerk reaction, to blurt out that he missed her, just her, and not working together, was ignored. “I don’t think you miss London traffic and morning fog, though,” James replied instead, smiling.

“Those things don’t matter,” Mara replied. “I miss seeing you every day.”

Had she transitioned to reading minds?

Nevertheless, James kept the smile planted on his face and said nothing. What could even be said?

“I miss walking onto our floor and waving at you from the elevator,” she continued. “How long has it been: a year since we saw each other?”

One year, four months, two days, 15 minutes.

James merely nodded, sipping his drink to avoid speaking what he simply couldn’t say.

“I tried to call you, you know,” Mara then said quietly.

Don’t choke. “You tried to call me?” he questioned, holding tightly to his composure. “When?”

Mara sipped her drink. “Many times. Times when your voice was the only one I needed to hear.”

Understandable, he quickly reasoned. It was the two of them as partners for a long time. Nine years, to be exact.  (Also recruited at 21, James Caraway had quickly risen in their ranks and was a mission lead by the time Mara came to them. The top brass had decided to place the two of them together, feeling that the closeness in their ages–James was four years Mara’s senior–would lend itself to her training. They had shared everything: from missions to near-death experiences to those tiny, quiet moments in between, when just being side by side provided a sense of comfort and safety that didn’t require explanation or discussion. And then, three years ago, their superiors promoted Mara to a special counterintelligence team that didn’t include James.)

“I wish I had known,” was his only reply. Perhaps those unlisted numbers were her. Perhaps, deep, deep down, he had known it was her calling and allowed the calls to go unanswered. It didn’t matter, in the end. She missed him as a friend and a colleague, nothing more.

Mara then peered out of the window, gazing at the rain-soaked evening. James took that opportunity to carefully study her this time, not a surface appraisal like before. He took in every nuance of her, carving a new image of her to replace the one he had placed in his mind when they last saw another. Her dark brown skin, far more luminous than a year ago; the full head of curls, longer and fuller; even her shade of lipstick, deep red and warm. That way, when he closed his eyes from this day forward, he would see her in the present, as she was now. It made things a bit more real.

“James,” she said, turning back to face him, “you, my friend, are a terrible, terrible actor. How you’ve been able to excel this long in espionage is beyond me.”

Taken aback, he shook his head. “I’m not quite sure what–“

She reached across the table and grasped his hands. “Did you know it was me calling all those times? Did see you those numbers and wonder if it was me?”

“Mara, I–“

“Why did you ignore my calls, James? Why don’t you reply to my emails? Why did you arrange this dinner through Michael?”

Michael Hanson was her handler. James ran into Hanson one morning at the office and had suggested the dinner, hastily speaking before he could take it all back. Of course, he had used the cover that it was high time that Mara and her former partner/trainer reunite.

Mara squeezed his hands, still leaning over, her brown eyes boring into his. “What have you been afraid to tell me? Why have you been afraid to say? Do you think I’ve never noticed you looking at me? Just like you were a few seconds ago? Do you think I’ve been blind all this time?”

Briefly, James noted that this interrogation technique, wearying the subject with rapid-fire, incessant questions, was something he had taught her to do.

“What are you afraid of, James? What are you imprisoned by? What keeps you from doing what you want?”

“Please, Mara. Stop.” How could a moment be so fraught with both desire and a wish for silence? How could he be so puzzled by her abrupt turn of behavior and equally aware of why she was behaving this way?

She shook her head. “I won’t stop, James. I won’t. I’ve stood by for fifteen years, waiting for you to say something, to speak the obvious, and I won’t stop now. I won’t stop until–“

James laughed despite himself. “You’ve stood by for fifteen years? Oh, Mara. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She grinned. “That’s the first loosely combative thing you’ve ever said to me, James. Thank you.”

Freshly taken aback, he felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He wanted to wipe them, but he didn’t want to remove his hands from hers.

“I can resume my questioning if you don’t say something,” Mara warned, her eyes twinkling.

“Are you playing with me, Mara?” James asked. “What is this?”

Mara stood up and walked around to his side of the booth. She slid in next to him, as close as she physically could. “This is us releasing each other from the prisons we built 15 years ago, James. You’ve been worried for so long about telling me how you felt–that’s the prison you built. I’ve been waiting for so long for you to confirm what I felt the moment we met each other–the prison I built.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “No more prison for me, James. I’ve wanted you for fifteen years. Your turn. Tell me how you feel. Open the bars. Come out of the prison.”

James inhaled her words and roses and lilacs and swore he would pass out. Was all of this truly happening?

“You only remember me getting sick in Jakarta,” she said softly, leaning in even closer. “I remember watching you fall asleep every night in Jakarta. I couldn’t sleep. I would stay up and watch you sleep every evening until the morning. Fifteen nights, just watching you sleep, feeling strange and confused and just…”

Fifteen nights.

Fifteen years.

Exhale.

Exhale.

Exhale.

He had been holding his breath for fifteen years. Apparently, they both had.

Mara smiled at him. She knew it, then, that he was letting go.

James reached over and gently caressed her cheek. “How did you…how did you know all of this?” he asked her.

She placed her hand over his. “I’m a super spy. I know everything.”

***

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Blogvember #22: Choices.(Mission Possible)

This was the photo I used for the back of my recent work of fiction, The Loftiest Thing. I love this photo. For one thing, the trees in the background absolutely fit the title’s theme, which was also one of the stories in the book. Secondly, I think my photographer (who also happens to be a good, longtime friend) captured the joy I felt at having accomplished this latest creative project. The natural lighting, the setting: parfait. 

My third book is on the horizon. Can we pause to celebrate this?


A part of me wants to keep that photo for the back cover. The other part of me wants to change it up. Just because change is always refreshing, and I think this third book represents some of the changes I’ve made with how I want to present my art. Below are the three photos I’m considering. 


Your mission, if you choose to accept it (and why wouldn’t you? You love me, right?): what say you? Pick the photo you like the most and tell me your option in the comments. I’m partial to all three of them, so I’m no help. The most-picked will win and I’ll make it my back photo. 

Happy choosing on my behalf…

The Choice.

I haven’t shared fiction with you in a while, have I? Here’s one you’ll likely find in my third collection of short fiction. Yes, another book is coming. Call it a spoiler. Share your thoughts about it in the comments, won’t you?

Enjoy your Friday and have a bon weekend.

***********************************************************************

The Choice

The envelope sat on the picnic table next to her half-eaten blueberry muffin from that morning. Upon glancing at the sender’s name, his stomach dropped. He wasn’t in the habit of reading her mail, but privacy paled in comparison to the name in front of him. He pulled the letter from the envelope.

Cancer.

Dying.

I need to see you.

Gripping the iron chair for balance and the need to feel something firm and concrete—unlike the jelly that seemed to now permeate his body—Desmond continued reading. A plea to see her just once, to make amends. He swallowed thickly and placed the letter back into the envelope. Glancing at the muffin, he wasn’t surprised at her loss of her appetite.

 

The next morning, he watched as she quietly moved around the house, her demeanor unreadable. She occupied herself with her usual weekend routine of household chores: cleaning, dusting, vacuuming. He entered the kitchen from the patio just as she was approaching the sink. “I’ll take care of the dishes,” Desmond said. There were a few plates from their breakfast.

“You just mowed the lawn. I can do them,” she replied.

He smiled at her. “Let’s do them together.” With that, he pulled over a chair and sat next to her, as the sink had been modified to allow her to reach it from her wheelchair. “I wash, you dry.”

Liza gazed at him. “Deal,” she said, ruffling his hair.

While they washed, both silent, the contents of the letter ran around in his mind. He wondered how to reveal that he knew about it. But he wouldn’t have to wonder long.

“My father found me. He sent me a letter,” she said as she slowly dried a plate.

He didn’t reply, waiting for her to continue.

“He’s sick. Lung cancer. He wants to see me.” She looked up at him. “Tell me what to do.”

His heart thumped painfully. Every inch of his being wanted to do just that, to tell her to refuse to see him. But nothing about that desire was right or fair. “I can’t,” he said, gazing at her. “The decision is all yours.”

“What would you do?” she pressed.

“I really don’t know.”

“I don’t believe that,” she replied, suddenly reaching over and decorating his chin with a handful of soap suds. “You always know what to do.”

“Hey,” he mildly protested, returning the favor by piling suds on both sides of her face. It was a playful respite from the conversation at hand. He welcomed it, however brief it would be. And sure enough, as her laughter dissipated, he knew that they were quickly back to reality.

“I don’t know how to feel, Des,” Liza said quietly. “It’s like opening a door I’ve closed for a long time.”

Desmond nodded. “I know.”

 

“There’s no way I’d let my wife…” Rich Mooney shook his head, unable to finish his statement, and took a long swig of beer.

Desmond turned his empty glass around and around on the table, his mind a jumble of emotions and thoughts. While Liza napped at home, he had slipped out for a drink with Rich, his good friend and neighbor. Naturally, Rich quickly became a sounding board for Desmond’s present quagmire.

“The fact of the matter is, the guy doesn’t deserve anything from Liza,” Rich finally continued.

“Don’t you think I know that? But he’s her father.”

“I get that, Des. But father or no—he ruined his daughter’s life. Period.”

It was easy for Rich to carve the situation in simple black and white terms. He was the outsider looking in; the visitor to a situation that was older and far more complex than he knew. In the end, he knew that no opinion or thoughts on the matter, not even his own, could usurp whatever Liza decided she would do.

 

Later that night, as they both lay sleepless in bed, Liza released a long sigh. Desmond knew then that she would see her father. He wasn’t sure how he knew, how he understood, but the certainty of her decision was as plain as the ceiling above his head. “You’re not going by yourself,” he whispered, tightening his hold around her. “I’m going with you.”

Liza peered up at him, her eyes moist with tears. “You’re not angry?” she asked.

Desmond shook his head, nearly out of breath from the idea that he could ever be angry with her. It was impossible, even when they argued, to be angry with the woman he loved more than he could truly comprehend. “Never,” he firmly assured her.

 

Liza’s mother, however, had a far different reaction to learning that her daughter planned on seeing her father. That Monday morning, as Desmond sat in the usual LA morning traffic on his way to the office, Kate Harbor’s raised voice, on speakerphone, filled the confines of his car.

“How can you allow this, Desmond?” she cried. “That man is a monster. You’re pushing her into a room with a monster.”

For the past several moments following her phone call, he had remained silent as Kate expressed her outrage. If anything, he had surmised, her outrage was warranted. He shared it. Accordingly, there was no need to speak or to verbally agree to the feelings they shared. But the idea that he was forcing his wife to do this—Desmond needed to speak. “Kate, you need to understand that this is entirely Liza’s choice,” he interjected.

“It doesn’t matter. You should stop her.”

“I’ll do no such thing.”

“Desmond—“

“Your daughter is a grown woman, Kate. You don’t have to agree with what she’s doing, but you need to find a way to understand.”

After some silence on the other end, Kate cleared her throat. “I don’t think I can,” she whispered, her voice coated with emotion.

“But you have to try,” he replied softly.

 

Walter Harbor resided in a group home in a suburban neighborhood about 3 miles outside of New Haven, Connecticut. It was a stately three-story house that easily blended in with the other properties on the quiet street. A week later, as they sat in the car, Desmond watched his wife gaze at the house, her demeanor expressionless. Nevertheless, as she clutched his hand tighter and tighter, the fact that she experienced a range of emotions was indisputable. He leaned closer to her. “How are you?” he asked.

Liza shook her head. “I wish I knew how to answer that,” she replied, drawing in a prolonged breath. She then turned toward him. “But it’s now or never. I’m ready.”

Nodding, Desmond opened his door and made his way toward the backseat on the passenger side. He pulled out the wheelchair and positioned it firmly on the sidewalk. Opening her door, he carefully lifted Liza from the car and into the chair. As they headed toward the front door, he stopped himself from urging her into the opposite direction.

 

Perhaps more surreal than inhabiting a room with his wife’s father, a man he had never met or cared to, was watching him weep without feeling much sympathy for him.

Walter Harbor cried until the coughing fits that were a symptom of his cancer took over, turning his sobs into spasms that shook his frail body. Desmond watched from the corner of the room, mostly unmoved. He was solely interested in Liza’s side of the experience. For her part, Liza sat by the side of the bed and quietly waited for the coughing to subside until her father grew somewhat calm.

“I’m sorry,” Walter muttered, wiping his face with his hands.

“It’s ok.”

But almost immediately, fresh tears streamed down his weather-worn, hollow cheeks. “Seeing you—you’re so beautiful. I just—” He paused and held up his hand. “I’ll end up crying again. I’m glad you came, Liza. You’ve done really nicely for yourself. Your life, everything.” Walter nodded toward Desmond but didn’t look at him, which had been the case since the two had been shown to his room.

“Thank you. How did you find me?” Liza asked.

He grinned. “One of the guys from the force knew a private investigator, so I called in some favors. I was surprised that you left the East Coast. Thought you’d be a New York girl for the rest of your life.” He paused. “Is your mother—is she close by, in case you need her?”

“She’s close by.”

Walter nodded. “Good. I bet she wasn’t very happy when you decided to come see me, huh?”

“Can you blame her?” Desmond interjected, unable to stop himself from speaking.

Liza glanced at him. He mouthed “I’m sorry.” She smiled wanly and mouthed “it’s ok” in response.

“It’s understandable, yeah, her being mad about that,” Walter murmured, still not looking at Desmond. “I deserve her anger. I deserve your anger, Liza Marie.”

She shook her head. “Dad, I’m not angry with you. I stopped being angry at you a long time ago.”

He peered at her with wide, watery eyes, willing her to go on.

“I knew you drank too much. I knew you were sick. Deep down, I don’t believe you truly wanted to hurt Mom and me.”

Walter shook his head. “I went crazy that day, Liza. I never, ever meant to hurt my family,” he said fervently.

 

Her father was racing upstairs with a knife. After already hitting her mother, she knew he was going to kill her. Eyeing his left hand, which held the knife, 10 year-old Liza Marie Harbor ran up behind him and jumped on his back. She willed herself to be strong and to hold on tight. She was going to knock the knife from his hand.

Get off me, Liza, he threatened.

No! You won’t hurt Mom!

Without another word, he forcefully pushed her back, causing her to plummet backwards. When she finally reached the bottom of the staircase, sharp pains ran up her legs and her backside. She screamed for her mother until, strangely, the need to close her eyes came over her.

 

“You did hurt us,” Liza said simply. She leaned over and took her father’s skeletal hands in hers. “It was so hard for Mom and me, for so long. But 25 years later, Dad, I can only forgive you. I forgive you for everything.”

Desmond felt his chest tightening. A hard ball began to form in his chest; it was a paradox, this hard, tight ball, made up of rage for a man who he felt didn’t deserve forgiveness and heightened respect for the woman who had just given it to him.

Walter began to weep once again. “You can’t walk because of me,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry, my darling. I’m so, so sorry.”

Desmond nearly rose to his feet. He ached to condemn Walter’s tears. He wanted to refute his apology.

Liza tenderly rubbed her father’s hands. “I accept your apology,” she said softly. With that, she leaned over and kissed her father’s forehead. “Be at peace with yourself, Dad. You’ve made your amends with me.”

Desmond shook his head, unable to stop trembling. Yell at him, he silently begged Liza. Be angry with him.

“You’ve made your amends me with me,” she repeated to her father, as if in response to Desmond’s silent plea. “Thank you for giving me life.”

Walter Harbor nodded slowly, gazing at her, his eyes brimming with tears.

Liza then turned toward Desmond. “We’re ready to go,” she announced. Her wide eyes, so much like her father’s, seemed to implore him to do what he struggled to do—to stand up and leave without another word to the man who painfully and irrevocably changed her life. Coming here was one thing. But Liza had to recognize that to leave without a word was too much to ask of him.

She held out her hand. Please, her eyes seemed to entreat.

Desmond stood up, his attention directed on his father-in-law, a man who couldn’t even look at him. But eventually, his attention was pulled toward the woman he loved, who waited for him with her outstretched hand. With a deep breath, he approached her and claimed that hand. Without looking back, Desmond pushed her toward the door.

“Desmond.”

He froze at the sound of his name. Slowly, Desmond turned around. Walter Harbor’s eyes were intently fixed on his. “You keep taking care of her,” he said.

She takes care of me, he wanted to reply. However, he merely nodded and departed the room with his wife.

 

They sat in the car, still parked by the group home.

“How could you forgive him, Liza?” he whispered. “Help me understand.”

“If I could, there are so many things in life I would have chosen to do. Have children. Dance at our wedding. So many things. But I had the power to choose this time, Desmond. And I chose to give my father something he’s never experienced in his life: peace of mind. That could only come from forgiving him.” She paused. “It was what I wanted to do.”

“But he took your choices away when he…” His voice caught in his throat. “When he caused your accident.”

“Yes, that is true. But without that wheelchair, I wouldn’t have accidentally rolled over your feet in Lecture Hall the first day we met.”

Desmond looked up at her, both taken aback and moved. Her words elicited the vivid memory of that day in college. He was still convinced that he had fallen in love with her on sight.

Liza beamed, smiling at him. “I choose to focus on that,” she said, “the effect rather than the cause. The cause was you. In the end, that’s all I choose to care about.”

From the beginning, he realized, this entire matter had been about choices. And he wasn’t about to take that away from her.

 

About your Author: Round-Up.

Seriously. Why are we doing this? You don’t have a book to promote. 
Is that why you think I do this feature? To promote my fiction?

What other infernal reason could there be?
We’ve talked about plenty of things via this feature. The weather, working out, health. It’s fun.

Debatable. Anyway. What’s going on? You got quite a bit of snow last week, didn’t you?
A “bit” is underestimating it. It was unreal. I’ve seen blizzards before, experienced them, but this…

Not so fun when you’re an adult. Right?
Right. Exactly. You know me so well, kitten.

Again, because I’m you. You’re essentially talking to yourself. You get that, right? Right?
Anyway, what else is going on? Let’s see. I’m making plans about the future.

ARE YOU GETTING MARRIED?
Mom, is that you?

What’s this about the future? What’s happening? What are you doing??
Just making some significant changes. When things become more concrete, I’ll discuss them here. Until then–

Until then we’re all supposed to be on pins and needles, waiting with bated breath, until you reveal the plans about your non-husband?
That cabin fever did wonders with your temper and sarcasm, didn’t it?

So, your writing. How’s that going?
I’ve actually been dabbling in science fiction lately. I included a very sci-fi-esque story in my recent collection and it certainly lit a fire. So I’ve been writing short stories in that vein. Pretty proud of the one I wrote a few weeks ago, actually. I even submitted it for a writing contest.

How would you define science fiction?
Themes that deal with time travel, parallel universes, things like that.

Interesting. Are you going to post your beloved new story on here?
In a few weeks, yeah.

What do you like about that genre so much?
Here’s how I feel about it: if I write about time travel, I feel like the science fiction genre allows me to go as far as my imagination will allow and beyond without having to go too crazy with research and facts. Because no one has traveled through time. If I write a story about Savannah’s legal system, it needs to be based on the actual legal system in Georgia. you feel me?

So this is your lazy way of avoiding research. I feel you.
You’re the worst.

And yet you didn’t disagree. 
I’m leaving you now.

*sigh of relief*
You really are the worst.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The Wedding and the Web: The End

*

It was a lovely wedding. There was an orchestra and ice swans and roses flown in from Marseilles. My sister Charlotte was rhapsody in white; my other sisters and I wore lovely gowns in various shades of blue. Even Irene Vine, as she cried in the front row, allowed Danny to pat her hand and comfort her. The webs were all around us: between family, husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters.

Notably, a curious new web seemed to be forming. Its long, shiny string drifted from the front of ballroom, where I stood, over into the audience where Andy Flood sat in the fourth row. He openly watched me during the ceremony, a fact that intrigued and delighted me more than the silver flask peeking out from the top of Carmen’s dress.

At the end of the ceremony, Andy stopped upon reaching me in the receiving line and handed me, not a red rose from Marseilles, but a yellow daffodil. “Your favorite, remember? From the flower shop on Baker Street,” he whispered in my ear. “May I have the first dance at the reception?”

“Yes,” I whispered back, after which I watched him move through the crowd until he exited the lobby.

I gazed at the flower. How long ago had I mentioned that I adored the yellow daffodils at the flower shop on Baker Street? That I bought myself a bouquet once a month? It had to be ages ago. But it didn’t matter. He was listening. He had always been listening.

The Wedding and the Web: Part 6

*

“Nervous about tomorrow?” Andy Flood asked as he walked into the break room that morning.

I stood by the counter, stirring my coffee and deliberating over my resolution from a few nights ago. “Actually, no. I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“Mostly because of what Carmen may do.”

I watched him laugh. Andy Flood laughed at everything I said. He conversed with me every morning, every afternoon. He was kind and flexible, especially about the general craziness of this wedding time for me, all the time, really. He respected my dedication to my family, as he said, but seemed to be aware of the necessity of setting a few boundaries without communicating this in an outright, intrusive manner. Andy Flood was a terrific guy. I hoped whomever he had this crush on would be fortunate enough to find that out.

“So, Catherine, I’m pretty curious about this royal wedding. Can I crash?”

“Absolutely. Just be prepared to wear a server’s uniform. My mother will be eyeing that guest list like a hawk.”

“Hmm. Well, how about I just come? As your date?” He approached the counter and poured a cup of coffee.

I blinked a few hundred times. “My date?”

Andy nodded, regarding me, his demeanor unreadable. I waited for a punch line that never came. “But,” I croaked, “why?”

“Why not?”

My mind, slightly scrambled, searched for a response. “I’m—I mean—what do you—?”

“Black tie, right?”

I nodded slowly.

“I’ll be there. Email me the address.” With that, he smiled at me and left the break room.

Taken aback, I rushed to the ladies room and called Carmen.

“And Hot Lips Marta Weeks told you he has a crush on someone in the office?” she asked me a few minutes later.

“Yes, but—” It couldn’t be. Could it?

“Wake up, Catherine Vine,” Carmen said, as if reading my mind. “It’s you. You’re the crush.”

“But, why?” I asked for the second time that day.

“Why not, silly? Look, we’ve been conditioned to accept the opposite for far too long, but here it is: you matter, too. To this family, to Andy Flood. You matter. We all do. Deep down, even Bob and Irene Vine know and believe that. That’s the plain truth. All right, call me later; I’m trying to sew a flask into this gown.” With that, she ended the call.

Why not? I asked myself for the remainder of the day.

The Wedding and the Web: Part 5

*

At the co-ed bridal shower a few evenings later, I watched Sanford and Charlotte twirl around on the dance floor. Our parents had rented a much smaller ballroom in a smaller hotel for the event, but it was no less swanky, as it was a black-tie affair. Caroline, Danny, Carmen, and I sat at a table. We were surprised that Danny had agreed to come, but were nonetheless happy he was there.

“You know what?” Carmen began, accepting her fifth glass of champagne from the server. “That chauvinist pig really does love her. Look at them.”

I already was. Sanford whispered in her ear; he intermittently dipped her, to her delight; he made her laugh. There were times, too, unbeknownst to Charlotte, that Sanford simply gazed at his wife-to-be, stupefied and proud all at the same time. I swallowed thickly. My sister was not solely our parents’ miracle, but his, as well.

Caroline glanced pitifully at me, as did Danny. My heart sank. Did I truly believe that my sister hadn’t mentioned my feelings for Sanford to her husband?

“When she was 7, I think, she told me that she was a princess, but she couldn’t marry a prince because she was—she was sick all the time,” Carmen continued, slowly swirling her champagne around in the glass and gazing at the bubbles. “Remember how she was in and out of the hospital for all the bronchial stuff? But, I told her, ‘you can marry a prince, Charlotte. Your prince will love you and take care of you.’” With tears now glistening in her eyes, Carmen downed the contents of the glass and hailed a server for another. Caroline vigorously shook her head at the server and flagged another server down for several cups of coffee.

With Carmen’s words volleying about in my mind, I returned my attention to the couple, really to Charlotte. She was vision in a mermaid-style, black gown, her dark hair cascading down her shoulders in loose ringlets. She no longer dealt with bronchial and respiratory issues, although my mother still forced her to wear a coat during the cool San Diego evenings. At 26, she was a healthy, vibrant woman. Coddling her was no longer necessary, but I knew it wouldn’t stop, certainly not from Bob and Irene Vine. To them, Charlotte Mary Vine was still that baby in the NICU, struggling to breathe. But I had to put a stop to certain things; to babying her, to my parents’ requests that I baby her, to my feelings for her almost-husband. Let the princess alone, I told myself. Leave her to her prince, and do it quickly.

“Cath, would you like to dance?” Danny asked.

Slightly thankful for the interruption to my thoughts, I nodded and left Caroline to mind a belligerent-because-of-coffee Carmen. We walked out onto the dance floor and began to sway to a light jazz number.

“Easier said than done,” Danny said, “but I’m sure you know that you need to get over him.”

“I know. I’m resolved to do just that.”

“Good. But how?”

“Loyalty to my sister and just moving on with my life. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m confident,” I said firmly.

Danny nodded. “I believe you. What made you fall for him in the first place?”

“We were teenagers. But he seemed to care about what I thought about things, my opinions. Something about that stayed with me and didn’t want to let go.” I pondered it over some more. “He listened to me. No one seemed to be listening to me.”

“Someone will, Cath. I know that, we all know that. You’re worth listening to.”

I smiled at my brother-in-law. One day, my parents would understand that their eldest had indeed married up.

The Wedding and the Web: Part 4

            *

Charlotte eventually settled on a venue for the wedding—the grand ballroom of the Hotel del Coronado. Gradually, painstakingly, the colors were picked, the dress was finally chosen, and the bridal party wined, dined, and fêted the bride-to-be. Specifically, this bridal party consisted of the three of us: one matron of honor and two maids. Carmen was the last to accept Charlotte’s request to stand alongside her on her big day, but not without a promise to Caroline and me that she would arrive intoxicated to the wedding and any other wedding-related events. (We believed her.)

“So do you have to wear crowns for the royal wedding?” Andy Flood asked me that morning, after I filled him in on the final stages of the wedding planning. As usual, he stood before my desk.

“Not the ladies-in-waiting. Just the princess gets the crown.”

“Ah. I’m sure you’ll be relieved when it’s all over.”

“Incredibly relieved. I plan on taking a few days off, actually—until I’m tasked with being the wet nurse for their first child.”

Andy laughed. “Let’s hope you never get that phone call.”

Marta Weeks, another assistant, then rounded the corner and approached us. “Andy, you’re being summoned by Ed.”

He waved goodbye to us before heading down the hallway. Marta openly watched him walk away. It was no secret that she had a thing for Andy, as did most of the female population at Hardy and Malloy. “That Andy Flood,” she murmured. “It’s a shame.”

“What is?”

“The fact that he’s not the least bit interested in me, despite my efforts to change that. A gal gets tired of parading herself around, believe me.”

I raised my eyebrows and left that particular statement alone. Marta’s penchant for short and tight-fitted clothing was a point of discussion around the office.

“Rumor is he has a crush on someone in the office, though,” she continued.

“Really? Who?” I knew quite a bit about Andy and his background, but a crush had never come up in conversation. But then why would he reveal that kind of information to me? We tended to discuss general topics like work, family, and things of that nature.

Marta shrugged. “It’s not me, that’s for sure.”

“Well, it’s probably another lawyer. Rachel Neal seems popular.”

“It’s definitely not Rachel Neal. She’s engaged to an aide in the mayor’s office. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Like I said, it’s not yours truly, so I really don’t care.” She winked at me before walking away. For a moment, I reflected on how difficult it was to actually like Marta Weeks.

Who did Andy Flood have a crush on?

The Wedding and the Web: Part 3

*

When I wasn’t sitting by Charlotte’s side during the wedding preparations, I was a litigation assistant for a law firm in the city. The world of lawsuits and trials was a significant diversion from frilly dresses and color swatches, and far more interesting. Nevertheless, my busy job didn’t necessarily mean I could escape from my family.

“Sweetheart,” my mother began when I answered the call on my desk phone that morning, “there’s a potential change in venue. Your sister heard about a lovely banquet hall on Catalina Island. You know how special Catalina is to her.” The island was where Charlotte and Sanford had their first date.

I sighed inwardly. “When is she planning to take a look at it?”

“This afternoon.”

Oh, God. “Mom, I can’t go. I need to be in court this afternoon. There’s a case, and—”

“Catherine.” Her voice had dipped into that lower register reserved for mothers ready to remind older sisters about miracle babies and providing them all the support they needed. I knew it well. “Your sister needs you.”

“Maybe Carmen can go. I know she’ll be free this after—”

“Carmen cannot possibly go. You know that.”

True, it was a silly suggestion. Carmen tended to get physically and verbally combative with Charlotte. Despite being largely incensed with our parents about, well, everything, this didn’t preclude her from taking it out on the baby. “Ok,” I replied. “I can check with Caroline, then.”

Mom breathed into my ear.

Oh, God.

“Catherine, it is important that you go. You know how easily turned around your sister gets, even with that GPS thing. She probably won’t find the harbor. And Sanford is in Sacramento today, so he’s unavailable. Can’t these lawyers understand that your little sister needs you?”

It was the typical guilt-trip triumvirate: Charlotte being alone, her well-being, and how those two things superseded everything. I held my breath and closed my eyes, hoping the phone would somehow disconnect. A slight tapping on my desk caused them to open. Andy Flood, one of the attorneys I supported, stood before my desk. “It’s ok; you can go,” he said softly.

“Are you sure?” I whispered, placing my hand over the phone’s speaker.

He nodded.

“Mom,” I said, “I’ll meet her.” I could practically hear my mother’s lips widening in a smile.

“Wonderful. Pick her up around 1pm, sweetie. ‘Bye.”

“Thank you,” I said to Andy after hanging up the phone. Having supported him for almost three years now, he had become well-versed in my family’s antics.

“I couldn’t help but overhear. Duties for the royal wedding, I presume,” he replied.

I laughed. “Exactly. But is it really ok? I’ve finalized most of the briefs, but there are few more left to finish.”

Andy waved his hand. “It’s 10:15. If you can finish the rest, Marta can take over and come to court with us. No worries.”

I thanked him again and got to work. I dreaded going to Catalina, but in the meantime, anything to take my mind off the island was welcome.

                                                                                          *

After Catalina and touring the banquet room (“it’s a possibility,” Charlotte had decided), I returned to the office a bit after 6 that evening. All in all, the excursion had taken a whopping five hours; my mother and sister failed to comprehend things like the hour it took just to get from the city to the harbor, where a boat took travelers to the island and back.

“Cath?”

I turned around, having walked past Andy’s office toward my desk without realizing he was inside. I approached his office.

“You didn’t have to come back,” he said.

“It’s fine. I have a ton of things to do.”

Andy smiled. “Be honest with me, Cath, really. Do you ever feel like saying no to your family?”

“All the time.”

“But you won’t. Or can’t?”

“Hey, are you a lawyer or a therapist?” I joked.

He chuckled. “I just kind of marvel sometimes, at your dedication to them.”

“You and me both.”

“Believe me, I love my family, too. But your patience is extraordinary. I respect that.”

“Thank you.” Later, the ideas that Andy “marveled” at my dedication and respected me struck me. I wasn’t sure why.

                                                                                            *

By and large, Caroline’s husband, Danny, didn’t interact with our parents. Their tense relationship started when our parents disagreed with their oldest daughter marrying an auto mechanic. It didn’t matter that, at the time, Danny already owned two successful shops. They still objected. In the end, only my father chose to attend their wedding in order to walk his weeping daughter down the aisle. Five years later and a few weeks ago, learning about the price tag of Charlotte’s wedding and their eager support of her marriage was all it took for Danny; Caroline and I had been forced to restrain him from getting into a car and driving to our parents’ home for a confrontation. (Carmen had cheered on his plans.)

The next morning, I sat adjacent to Danny in their kitchen as he sipped a cup of coffee and peered at me over the lid. “I heard you drove to Catalina yesterday,” he said.

I understood Caroline telling her husband everything, but I questioned the wisdom of informing Danny about these types of things, being that he was usually minutes away from burning down my parents’ house. And, along with everything else, my adventures with Charlotte, as dictated by my parents, didn’t rank high on his list of favorite things. I merely nodded in reply.

“What was that, like a six-hour drive?” he asked.

“About five hours,” I said, not meeting his eyes.

“And is she booking the venue for sure?”

“Danny…”

“Don’t worry about it, Cath. After breakfast, I’ll check out your car. I’m sure you’ve been logging more than a few miles on it lately.”

“Thanks, Danny.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Caroline entered the kitchen then, armed with a basket of oranges, strawberries, and other assorted fruits from their garden. “Fruit salad, anyone?” she asked, smiling at us. She playfully ruffled Danny’s hair.

He gazed up at her, beaming. Parental objections or not, not one of us doubted their love and affection for each other. It was another web, wasn’t it? I thought. Tested and challenged, but no less solid.

The person you want this kind of love with loves your little sister, a voice then reminded me.

Things need to change, Catherine.

Now.

But how?

The Wedding and the Web: Part 2

Charlotte may have been the fragile baby, but I was the one with the problem. The short of it, akin to a plot from a frothy, clichéd soap opera: we had all grown up together, the Vine sisters and Sanford; I fell in love with Sanford somewhere along the way; he fell for Charlotte. And why wouldn’t he? She was smart, beautiful, trilingual. (There was a year of studying abroad in Portugal, too.) I was fine with it, except for the days, hours, and minutes when my heart seemed poised to take its final beat from the stress of it all. This was what Carmen had alluded to in her apartment those few days ago. Although my parents knew nothing about my feelings for Sanford, it wouldn’t matter, anyway, who I had feelings for—I was merely the nurse whose sole responsibility was to take care of her baby sister. That certainly ruled out expensive weddings for me. (“You’re their spinster martyr,” Carmen liked to say.) All that said, unlike a frothy, clichéd soap opera, there would be no devious plot to steal the man my sister loved. I had no plans to ruin my sister’s life. Until I woke up one morning with my heart and emotions back to normal, I had no choice but to wait, suffer, and ensure that my sister wasn’t overwhelmed by all the wedding planning. A spinster martyr, indeed.

*

“How’s life, my Catherine?” my father asked me that evening.

“Good.” There was no need to provide further details. It was my father’s requisite, surface attempt at conversation, and my “good” would suffice for him. My parents weren’t bad people, however. Having been molded by so much tragedy, our existing family dynamic was the result. The three years between my birth and Charlotte’s had been fraught with two heartbreaking miscarriages. Charlotte was their miracle pregnancy when they had been told that a baby would likely not come; hers was the dangerous journey toward birth, as my mother was ordered to bed as soon as they learned she was pregnant; and when Charlotte finally arrived, she came 7 months premature. Some time ago, I began to recognize that a type of cocoon, a web, formed around parents and children with that kind of history. It was the kind of structure that no other child could penetrate. I didn’t doubt their love for the three of us, but the web around our parents and Charlotte was altogether different and indestructible.

Dad and I continued to wash the dishes—I soaped and rinsed, he dried—in silence. We had been invited to dinner that evening; Carmen had declined the offer, while Caroline had promptly disappeared once the wedding talk commenced. Behind us at the kitchen table, my mother and Charlotte peered through bridal magazines and intermittently punctured the quiet atmosphere with excited squeals over a dress or a decoration. When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, I nearly dropped the plate I was washing. Undeniably, it was Sanford.

“Sorry I missed dinner, love,” I heard him tell Charlotte in the foyer, after she had raced to open the front door. “It was bedlam at the office.” His apology was obviously accepted, as audible sounds of affection reached my ears in the kitchen. My chest burned.

“Sanford, we saved you dinner. Get in here,” my mother called playfully.

As if she had come out of thin air, Caroline appeared in the kitchen. My protector, I thought. She was instantly by my side at the sink, gently pushing our father out of the way and commanding that he go and greet his almost son-in-law.

“It’s 1 and 3. Ladies, how are you?” Sanford asked behind us. “1” and “3” were his longstanding nicknames for us, based on our pecking order as siblings. However, following a particular tense conversation between him and Carmen about the chauvinistic implications of a woman being identified by a number, Carmen was simply Carmen.

Caroline squeezed my hand beneath the warm, soapy water. “We’re fine,” she replied, quickly turning around to smile at Sanford.

I turned and waved at him before returning my now blurry gaze back to the sink.

“Charlotte, show Sanford some of our ideas for the big day. No photos of the dresses we’re considering, of course,” my mother said.

“Let the man eat first, Irene,” my father said mock gruffly.

Charlotte retrieved the pan of lasagna from the oven and began to prepare Sanford’s plate. Peripherally, I watched her hum and smile to herself. My heart skipped more than a few beats. Caroline squeezed my hand again. I looked up at her and silently communicated what she already knew: I needed to get out of there. Quickly, we finished the remainder of the dishes.

“Mom, Dad, lovebirds,” Caroline said when we were done, “we’re going to head out.” An excuse for our abrupt departure wasn’t necessary; my parents were happily preoccupied with the lovebirds. They would not protest. We said our goodbyes. Once outside, I crouched down on the driveway and took in long, deep breaths of the cool evening air. Caroline rubbed my back wordlessly before leaning down next to me. “Things need to change, Catherine,” she whispered in my ear. “Now.”