I was unloading the grocery bags—it was amazing how many groceries kids could go
through in a week—when the phone rang.
“Hi, honey,” my uncle’s voice said in my ear. “How’s my favorite gal?”
“Beat.” I stuffed the two dozen eggs in the refrigerator and sank down into a chair.
“I've been shopping with the kids all day. I wanted to get them some school clothes
before the stores jacked the prices sky high.”
“You spend entirely too much money on those kids.”
I grinned. “Well, there’s a news flash.” It was a difference of opinion so familiar it had
become a comfortable joke. “They grow an inch an hour, you know. Nothing I bought
them at the beginning of the summer fits now.”
“Still . . .” He let it go, unusual for him.
After a minute of silence, I asked, “How are you? How’s Carly?”
“She’s wonderful, as always. Actually, I’m calling to ask you if you’re free Saturday
night. Carly and I want you to have dinner with us.”
I smiled. He made the suggestion as if there were a possibility I would say no, which
was absurd. Still, I played along with the joke. “Hmmm...I’ll have to check my calendar.
Yep, I’m free,” I said, examining my fingernails.
“Good. I’ve asked Darlene and Fred. I hope you don’t mind.”
I didn’t. Much. “Of course I don’t mind. I know I have to share you from time to time.
Are we having some kind of do?”
“Something like that,” he said. “Oh, and—uh—Todd’s in town. Would it be a problem
if he came?”
It took a moment for his words to register. When they did, I was glad I was sitting
down. A problem? Jesus! Had he really asked that question? He could bet his ass it
was a problem. I had spent years avoiding seeing Jack’s stepson. He had visited
occasionally, probably a dozen times in the last eight years that I was aware of. Uncle
Jack and Carly had been kind enough to drop hints when he might be around, and I
had managed each time to be unavailable for the little get-togethers they’d planned.
Could they really be that blind? That insensitive?
“No,” I said. “No problem at all.” Since I had no intention of showing up.
“Is six too early?”
“Six it is. Gotta go. Give Carly my love.”
I was planning my upcoming virus before I’d hung up the phone.
“Todd’s in town,” he’d said, as casually as he might have said, “It’s going to be hot
tomorrow.” Maybe I really had fooled them both. Maybe I’d fooled everyone. Because
that’s what I’d set out to do eight years ago.
Would it be a problem if he came? Would it be a problem to sit across a dinner table
from a man who had stomped my heart into the sand without word or explanation, who
had never made any attempt to contact me in the years since? I rubbed my aching
forehead with my fingertips and tried not to visualize how he’d look today. If my mind
wasn’t cooperating, at least it was kind to me. It added eight years’ worth of wrinkles to
his face, a belly, maybe, one he’d gotten swilling beer with his fellow MPs after their
duty shifts. Jowls. Jowls were good, sagging, discolored pouches of dissipation. Bags
under his eyes were almost a given. Maybe he had gained a lot of weight. No. That one
wouldn’t work. The police department would never stand for that. The others were
possible, though, and made me feel marginally better, but not good enough to have
dinner with him.
“If you feel as mean as you’re lookin’, maybe I should come back another time.”
I turned toward the open glass doors off the dining room and smiled. Stella, my next-
door neighbor on the other side, stood leaning against the door, one hand on her hip
and her usual sassy grin on her face.
“Come on in,” I said, trying to shake off my nasty mood. “Want some iced tea?”
“Lord, yes. It’s hotter than a bitch out there.” She pushed the sliding glass doors
“I like fresh air,” I said mildly.
“Uh-huh. Me too, long as it’s filtered through an air conditioner.” She walked over to
the wall control and turned the switch to cool. Then she flopped into a chair, fanning
herself. “So what were you lookin’ so steamed about?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Neighbors who drop in without calling?”
“Very funny. What’d you want me to do, holler out the window? Besides, I did call.
Twice. The line was busy.”
“I was talking to my uncle.” I put a frosted glass of sweet iced tea and the sugar bowl
in front of her. Stella had a sweet tooth that made mine ache. I fully expected her to
collapse in a diabetic coma at my feet some day and, while that might very well happen,
it wouldn’t be me who stirred that final, decisive spoon of sugar into her beverage. I
tried not to look as she added three heaping ones to her glass.
“Well, it wasn’t your uncle who pissed you off. He’s about the sweetest man alive.”
She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Things still good between him and
I grinned. “You may as well give up on that one,” I said, fixing myself a glass of tea
and joining her at the table. “Those two are the proverbial happy couple.”
“Sure. That’s what the kids always believe.” She yawned and stretched her arms
over her head.
Could those boobs really be hers, I wondered, not for the first time.
“Speaking of hunks,” she went on, “there was a pretty nice-looking one hanging
around your front door earlier. You seein’ someone new?”
Her words following so closely after my uncle’s announcement set alarm bells off in
my head. "No. What did he look like?”
She smiled her catlike smile, deliberately crossing one long sun-bronzed leg over the
other. “Big and tall and solid looking. Nice arms. Tight pants.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “God, what a witness you’d make. Hair and eyes, Stella.”
“Oh, he had ’em all right.”
“I couldn’t make out his eyes. The eyelashes were too long.”
I waited. Stella could be infuriating at times.
“Blond hair. Real blond.”
I caught my breath. Had he actually had the audacity to come to my house?
“You got that look on you again.”
Denial set in. “He was probably a door-to-door salesman or something.”
“Uh-huh. Well, if he was, I’m in the market to buy anything that boy wants to sell.”
I jumped on the word. “Boy?”
She flipped a hand in the air. “Boy. Young man. Stud. Honey, they’re all boys to me.”
She reached into her halter-top and pulled out a cigarette and a pack of matches.
Maybe that was it, I thought idly. The cups were stuffed with cigarettes. “Don’t even
think about lighting that thing in here.”
She made a face. “You are such a stick in the mud. You think one little cigarette’s
gonna matter, bad as air pollution is anyway?”
“It matters to me. And it stinks.”
“Oh, all right.” She stuffed the cigarette and matches back in her halter. “Kids
outside?” she asked, looking around.
“On the beach, I suppose.”
“Maybe I’ll go see what they’re up to.”
“Good. Don’t smoke around them.”
“Honestly, sugar, you think a little smoke’s gonna pollute their little lungs?”
I nodded. “And their little minds.”
She rose languidly to her feet. Her height without the hair was close to six feet. She
was an impressive woman. “You busy tonight?”
“Thought you might like to go out with me. Have a little fun for a change.”
I grinned up at her. “I have plenty of fun. With the kids—and with Virgil.”
She made a face. “Virgil’s a dud.”
“Go home, Stella,” I said amiably.
I had just taken the first bite of my sandwich when the doorbell rang. I froze in mid-
chew. Then I shook myself. It was undoubtedly Leon, here to retrieve Suzy’s clothes.
“Get that will you, Freddie?” I yelled into the living room as I grabbed the bag of clothes.
“Here you go, Leon,” I said, rounding the corner. Then I stopped. The planet skidded to
a halt under me.
My legs were frozen. I couldn’t speak. Or breathe. I just stared. No jowls. Not a
wrinkle that I could see, and his belly was as flat as it had been eight years ago. Stella
was right. His pants were tight.
I brought my eyes back up to his face. “Todd.” The word was flat, emotionless. I was
so stunned that I felt numb.
“I hope you don’t mind me dropping in on you like this. I wanted to talk to you.”
Thoughts were reeling through my mind faster than I could process them. What was
he doing here? Where did he get the guts to just drop in after eight years? Did seeing
me again mean so little to him? Of course it did. Why would he care? He was the one
who’d walked away. How could he look so much the same? My feelings went from shock
to panic and back to anger in a blink. My face, for once, didn’t betray me. “Talk about
what?” I asked evenly.
He was looking at the kids. They were looking back with undisguised interest. He
gave an uncomfortable laugh. “Can I come in?”
The laugh did it. I felt like slugging him. “No,” I said, starting toward him. As I brushed
past him and out the front door, I said over my shoulder, “You guys finish eating.”
I marched down the front walk with Todd trailing along behind me. When I got to the
end, I turned to face him, crossing my arms across my chest. “Talk about what?” I
He was regarding me with that knowing little smile I remembered so well. “No ‘how are
Insufferable lout. “Sure. How are you? How are the wife and kiddies?”
“There are no wife and kiddies.”
“That’s nice. Enough social chitchat. What are you doing here?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. Another tug of memory. “I’m sorry to barge in on you
like this. I...uh...thought about calling.”
“You should have. What do you want to talk to me about?”
He looked around him. “Is there somewhere we can sit down for a minute?”
I glanced around at the walk, the sandy yard. After a second’s hesitation, I sat down
cross-legged on the walkway. Then I looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun and
gesturing toward the sidewalk with my free hand. “Please, have a seat.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I guess it was a mistake to come. I
just wanted to let you know that I’m in Orlando now.”
Call out the bands. “And?”
“And—and I’m sorry about your uncle. I wanted to let you know I’ll be around if you
need me.” He turned and started to walk away.
Alarms rang in my head again, loud, clanging ones. “What about my uncle?”