Authors: Molly O'Keefe
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Humor, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Fiction, #Humor & Satire, #American, #General Humor, #Sagas
“You must be Casey?” he heard Gwen say. “I’m Gwen.”
Ty stepped into the hallway just as Gwen was coming in.
“And I’m Monica,” the other woman said, stepping in behind Gwen.
In every single way the woman was stunning. Dark, nearly blue-black hair. Red lips. Honest-to-God purple eyes.
, he thought. Wonder Woman was the first woman he’d ever had the hots for. And Monica was a dead ringer.
“Hi, Monica,” Ty said, stepping into the mix. “I’m Casey’s dad, Ty.”
Monica’s smile was not the most welcoming and he realized she was here to suss out the situation; he supposed if he’d been in her spot, he’d do the same.
“Nice to meet you,” Monica said and they shook hands. She had a firm, no-nonsense grip just like, he imagined, Wonder Woman. “I’m Gwen’s sister.”
Gwen had a little smile about that.
“Come on in,” Ty said, trying to be welcoming when he wasn’t totally sure what the protocol was here. Did she need a urine test? A blood oath that there were no bodies in the basement? “There’s pizza.”
They walked down the small hallway toward the kitchen with its camouflage fridge and fake old table. In front of him, Monica put a hand to the hallway wall, as if feeling for something under the surface of the wood.
“You haven’t changed it much,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at him. “My mom lived here before you.”
“Your mom is that reality show star?” he asked. The guy he’d rented the house from had told him all about the television star who had remodeled and lived in this very house, disguised that very fridge, for nearly six months.
“Simone Appleby,” she said.
“I’ve seen that show,” Casey said, watching Gwen from the corner of his eye.
“You are not alone,” Monica laughed, looking around the kitchen with its pizza boxes and the carburetor parts on the counter.
“Then that makes you …” Ty said, connecting all his pop culture dots.
“Monica Appleby,” Gwen said, beaming with pride.
And that hero worship was very sweet, but it did nothing to dispel the insanity of having Monica Appleby in his house.
Monica and her mother had been on a reality show,
years and years ago, at the birth of the craze. Monica had been a teenager—and a full-throttle rebel, too. One could say that the terrible trend of teenage movie stars and celebrities behaving badly started with the woman who was now standing in his kitchen, making sure
wasn’t going to corrupt Gwen.
At some point in that show with her mom, Monica had run away to become a sort of glorified music groupie. She’d resurfaced a few years back, with a cool book about growing up backstage in the music industry.
“I liked your book,” he said. “The Wild Child one.”
“Thank you,” she said, and he imagined her having this exact exchange a million times in the past.
“Her new book is going to be even better,” Gwen said, shrugging off her jacket. “It’s for teenagers.”
“Can’t wait to read it,” Ty said.
Monica put her hand on Gwen’s head. “Gwen is going to be my publicist.”
The conversation stalled out and Ty glanced at his watch. It was after seven thirty.
“We’ve got Netflix,” Casey said to Gwen. “We can watch like every movie.”
movie,” Ty said. “Remember, when I come home I can see what you watched. So, nothing R-rated, and none of that creepy violent anime stuff you watched last time. Don’t think you’re getting away with anything.”
Casey shot him a humiliated angry look.
“Come on,” Gwen said, grabbing a plate and piece of pizza, “let’s see what our options are.”
Casey led Gwen into the living room, where the flat screen and couches were, leaving Ty alone with the Wild Child.
In an instant of stifling silence he decided not to wait
for Shelby here. He’d head over to her house to pick her up.
“I’ve never had a babysitter before, so I don’t know what …?” he asked.
“I’m doing here?” Monica supplied, staring at him from the corner of her purple eyes.
“I guess it’s to see if you can find the bodies, but really, I just needed a babysitter. Gwen came along at the right time.”
Monica laughed, thank God. “Jackson, Gwen’s brother, has grown a little protective, so I thought I’d just come and check things out. I’ll just stick around long enough to eat a piece of pizza and see them settled.”
Ty wasn’t sure if he should be grateful or offended.
“That’s fine … but I need to go.” He grabbed his coat from the pegs by the back door.
“Right!” Monica waved her hands. “You’ve got a date with Shelby.”
He stopped halfway into his jacket. “How did you know?”
“Small town,” she said with a shrug. “Gossip is part of the deal.”
He pulled his jacket all the way on and took his keys out of his pocket.
“How do you know Shelby?” she asked.
“She’s Casey’s art teacher. She helped us out of a bind.”
Monica flipped open the pizza box and made a big show out of studying the selection. Which was pepperoni and more pepperoni. “And that’s the only way you know her?”
“No,” he snapped, tired of everyone’s sideways glances and roundabout questions. “We were spies together.”
“Shelby’s a friend,” she said, as if that justified the way everyone looked at him when he said her name. “To all of us. We’re just looking out for her.”
“That’s nice and all, but this is just a date. And unless you want your friend stood up, I need to go.”
“You’re right,” she said, smiling as if that would fix it all. She was hot, he’d give her that, but she was no Shelby. “I’m sorry. Have a great time.”
He walked away from the kitchen toward the front door. “All my valuables are upstairs in my dresser. The sock drawer.”
“Good to know.”
He opened the door and stepped out only to turn and see Monica standing there as if it were her house.
“This is weird, you get that, right?” he asked.
“Welcome to Bishop.”
Shelby pulled her hair back into its standard ponytail. But that just looked so … standard.
She let it go and it rained down over her shoulders, halfway down her back. It had been so long since she’d worn it down, the length really surprised her. It felt oddly … decadent. Like she was Lady Godiva. Or a woman in a Sir Frederic Leighton painting.
She put on some lipstick, wiped it off, and tried another shade. The brighter of the two she owned. A little mascara and she stepped back, trying to see as much of herself as she could in the mirror over the bathroom sink. The black wrap dress had a deep V-neck. For her anyway; for the rest of the world it was downright demure. The underwear she’d bought last summer in an effort to seduce the man at a conference, made the most of her figure, and the small mounds of her breasts, rising up from the neckline, looked pretty. Sexy.
She looked very much not like herself. Which was awesome.
The thong was still as uncomfortable as it had been the first time she’d worn it. But in for penny, in for a pound.
She blew out a long breath and gave herself a good, long look in the eye.
“You’re fine,” she whispered. “Totally fine.”
A glance at her watch confirmed she was late. And Deena, Cathy’s sister, who was coming over to be with Evie, was late, too.
She opened the bathroom door only to collide with Mom, standing in the hallway in her high-necked nightgown.
“Hey, Mom, what are you up to?”
Her mother’s eyes traveled over Shelby’s dress. The hemline that flirted with her knees. The low-heeled boots that she’d polished. The neckline and the pearl-drop necklace Mom had given her upon her confirmation in the church.
Then she saw Shelby’s hair.
Mom’s face hardened, became a mask of sour anger. Shelby didn’t have time to process the change, to see what was happening before it actually happened.
“Look at you,” Mom spat. Cold dread slid down Shelby’s spine. Mom had drifted away from herself again and that was never good. Shelby took a half-step back hoping to get out of arm’s reach, but she was too late and her mother reached out and grabbed a handful of her hair. Yanking it so hard Shelby’s head turned sideways. Tears stung her eyes.
“Mom!” She tried to pull herself away, but her mother only yanked harder.
“You need to pray,” Mom said. “Your father is waiting for you at the church.”
She eased Mom’s fingers, trying not to hurt her, away
from her hair and leapt out of reach. “Daddy’s dead. The church is gone. There’s no—”
Mom’s gray eyes raked her and she felt the overwhelming need to hide her chest, the length of her legs under her skirt. Mom hadn’t had one of these episodes—where she seemed to take over Daddy’s old place in this world—in weeks.
Shelby had locked down the routine, made sure everything was the same in their world so that nothing would set her off. And it had helped.
This is what happens when you change the routine
When Daddy had been alive and preaching, Mom had been the roadblock between Shelby and his zealousness. She hadn’t been perfect, Shelby still spent more than her share of time begging forgiveness for sins that had never been committed, but Mom had tried. Mom had kept her safe as possible.
Which made these moments when she adopted Dad’s religious fervor and censure all the more terrifying.
“All dressed up like this. Like a slut. You need to repent. Repent your deeds. Your filthy thoughts.”
Fast as lightning, Mom smacked her across the face, and before Shelby could recover, Mom got ahold of her wrist, a bone-and-steel manacle forcing her to her knees.
Mom came down with her, clenching their hands together, bending her head over their clasped hands, her lips moving in prayer. “Forgive us, Father,” she nearly moaned, rocking back and forth. “Forgive us for our sins. Our sinful thoughts. Our sinful bodies.”
Shelby tried to pull herself away, to get to her feet, to get her distance. But Mom yanked her closer, spittle flying from her lips as she prayed with anguish. With more devotion than she’d ever exhibited.
Shelby felt panicked tears burn behind her eyes. Her chest was so tight she could barely breathe.
“Hello?” a cheerful voice cried out. Shelby collapsed forward, her chest nearly on her knees. It was Deena.
“Mom,” she whispered, trying to pull her mother back from the wilderness she was lost in. “Mom. Deena’s here. Remember Deena? She’s helping you sort the photographs. The pictures.”
“You’re a liar!” she spat, her fingernails digging into Shelby’s hand.
“Mom.” She swallowed a pained gasp and tried to smile. “Deena from church is here.” Deena wasn’t from church. She was a nurse with a daughter in her second year of college and she made extra money sometimes doing this kind of work. Reverse babysitting.
Mom glanced up, some of the fervent light draining from her eyes. Her mother was more child than adult sometimes. And nothing could pierce Shelby, nothing could destroy her, more than that lost, scared look in her mother’s eyes. Because behind the fear was knowledge. Understanding.
Mom knew that she was drifting away from what was real. All of her anchors were uncertain.
“Deena?” she asked.
Shelby nodded, biting her lip. “She’s helping you go through the photographs.”
That wasn’t true, but Mom had an ongoing project with the photographs; it changed in nature and focus, but it was a constant.
“The pictures of the church.”
Shelby closed her eyes against the bitter ache in her chest.
“Yes. The pictures of the church.”
Carefully, she began to stand, not sure if her mother
was with her or would suddenly pull her back down again. But Mom got to her feet, their hands still clenched.
“Hello?” It was Deena again, now at the bottom of the stairs.
“We’ll be down in a second, Deena,” she called. Mom dropped her hands and looked around the hallway, lined with piles of books and stacks of sewing projects. Boxes of yarn that she had ordered from a shopping network before Shelby cancelled the credit card she’d been using.
Do you see?
Shelby wanted to ask.
Do you see this or not? Are you here?
“What happened to you?” Mom asked. She reached up and touched Shelby’s hair where it was messed up from her yanking on it.
“Nothing,” she breathed, trying to smile through the squeeze of the vise around her heart.
“You look so pretty,” Evie said, stroking down her hair. “Your makeup is running.”
Shelby nodded and felt hot tears fall from her eyes.
There wasn’t going to be a date. She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sit across from Ty in some bar or restaurant and make small talk after her mother had called her a slut, smacked her face. Logically, she understood that Evie didn’t mean it. That it was the disease. Dr. Lohmann said the days would come when her mother no longer recognized her, when the care Shelby gave her would not be enough, when the disease already swallowing Mom’s life would start to swallow hers and she would need help. More help.
It was inevitable.
But in her heart there was no way she could reconcile everything; she didn’t have the personality, the wherewithal to bridge the gap between coping day to day with her mother’s Alzheimer’s and going out on a date with a man who wore leather bracelets.
A date. Who was she kidding? Shelby didn’t date. She pined after men who didn’t want her. She made terrible sexual mistakes. Dating was for regular women. Normal women.
She was devastated inside and she could not pretend otherwise.
“Let’s go downstairs,” Shelby said, leading her down the steps to where Deena was waiting. There was no fooling Deena, who knew every inch of the Alzheimer’s battlefield, and when they came down the stairs she felt Deena’s sharp eyes taking in the messed-up hair, the tears, the despair Shelby could not hide.
Deena’s smile was a tight, knowing knot, and Shelby had to look away, uncomfortable with pity and compassion.
“Hello, Evie,” Deena said, quietly, but kindly. “How are you tonight?”