The winding driveway leading to her parent’s house was flanked by waving grasses and day lilies just coming into bloom. The riot of color delighted most visitors, but for Abby it only intensified the sense of dread that filled her whenever she headed home. For her, going home meant spending days watching her sisters held up as shining examples of what was possible through hard work and determination, while being not so subtly reminded that if she ever intended to make anything of her life, she’d best get a move on.
Parked ahead in the circular drive was her younger sister’s car, a pink monstrosity of a Cadillac that announced to all her high status in the Mary Kay food chain. The day Julia had revealed her intention to peddle makeup and skincare products, Abby had nearly snorted her soda out her nose, but when her baby sister triumphantly announced her top saleswoman awards month after month, she’d stopped laughing. The pink Cadillac was yet another sign everyone in the family was more successful than she.
She didn’t see Eva’s black Escalade in the drive. Smirking slightly, she eased her battered VW Bug alongside the pink Cadillac, then backed up enough that her older sister wouldn’t be able to pull through or have enough room to park behind them. The old Bug shuddered and wheezed to a grateful stop, and Abby stepped out, flicking the remains of her cigarette to the drive and crushing it beneath her sneaker.
“Mallory Dawn, pick that up at once!”
Shit! She bent to snatch up the offending butt, her fingers fumbling for the pieces now ground into the graveled drive. Drawing a deep breath, she stood back up and dared a look towards the door and her mother.
Elizabeth Joan Willis was a tall, glamorous woman, who no more tolerated littering at home than she did her middle daughter’s desire to go by anything other than her birth name. To the people at work and to her friends, she was Abby—so named thanks to her idolization of Abby Sciuto on NCIS—but at home she had always and would always be Mallory Dawn.
“Why are you parked like that?” her mother demanded in a suspicious tone. “You know Eva will never be able to park in that space you left.”
“Bug died before I could pull through.” She shrugged as she pulled her duffel bag from the car and slammed the door. “She’ll just have to go around.”
“Honestly, I don’t understand why you drive that thing,” her mother complained as she stepped back to let Abby inside. “I know they pay you peanuts at that job, but surely you could afford something made in the last decade.” She glanced out at the street as if worried the neighbors might already be tsking over the ancient Bug dragging down property values. Without pausing, Abby raced up the stairs to her room, eager to escape before her mother could begin quizzing her on her job, non-existent relationships, and what she planned to do with her life.
The room she’d left behind at eighteen had purple walls and posters of Dimestore Hoods and Compulsion and Goldfinger, a black and purple zebra shag rug, and a black hutch style desk with an assortment of lava lamps along the top. It had been a hard-won battle to decorate it that way. Her mother had something of an obsession with all things neutral and had only admitted defeat after Abby redecorated the entire room during one of her mother’s weekend spa getaways. Even then, if Abby hadn’t installed a lock on the door, she doubted her remodeling would have survived past the following Monday. No doubt her mother would have had a work crew in there fifteen minutes after she’d gone to school. For once, Elizabeth Joan Willis decided to back off and simply bide her time.
Her chance came the day Abby drove off to college. Within hours of her car leaving the drive, the purples and blacks and glitter and lava lamps had vanished, replaced by a dozen shades of neutral. The doors and windows were edged with pristine white trim, and an elegant floral arrangement with orchids so realistic they demanded to be sniffed dominated the top of the carefully polished antique dresser. The room was straight out of a magazine. Literally. Her mother had smugly shown her the photo of it featured in a local style magazine. In Abby’s opinion, it was an utterly boring room and a perfect reflection of Mrs. Elizabeth Joan Willis’s style. Elegant, perfect, and risk-free.
Abby hated every minute spent in it.
Tossing her bag onto the immaculate white bedspread, she quickly retrieved a soft, furry blanket from its depths. Holding it to her face, she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. It was bright red with candy canes and snowmen dancing across it and was a Christmas present from a friend. She took it everywhere with her. On occasion she would catch someone staring curiously at her clutching it. An embarrassed shrug and an explanation of how she was always cold always seemed to satisfy them. The truth was the blanket made her feel safe, and she never went anywhere without it. She even took it to work. It insulated her from the chaos and deadlines and frazzled coworkers.
The second thing she pulled from the bag was a blue, scruffy stuffed dog. She allowed herself a quick hug before carefully tucking him out of sight behind the half dozen decorative pillows her mother insisted every bed in the house had.
“Just for now, Mr. Jingles,” she whispered, patting the stuffed dog on the head before arranging the last pillow to completely conceal him. “Mom would have a bitch kitty if she saw you.”
Every year since she turned six she’d asked for a puppy, but her mother had said no, insisting that dogs were filthy and she would not have one in her home. Feeling pity for his daughter but unwilling to cross his wife, her father had presented her with Mr. Jingles on her twelfth birthday. It had been love at first sight. She’d taken him everywhere with her, for rides on her bike and even to school, despite the teasing her classmates heaped upon her. Unfortunately, one of the neighbors saw Abby carrying on a spirited conversation with Mr. Jingles at the playground. Thinking she was relaying an adorable story, she told Abby’s mother all about it.
Rather than being amused, Elizabeth Joan was mortified. After the well-intentioned neighbor had left, she’d ordered the dog thrown out at once. Abby’s tears and pleas and promises to never talk to her toys again all fell on deaf ears. Her father tried to intervene, arguing that she was just a child and would eventually grow out of it, but her mother’s mind was made up. Abby went to bed that night with a broken heart, convinced she would never see Mr. Jingles again. However, in a surprising show of defiance, her father snuck out late that night and retrieved him from the dumpster. He’d made Abby pinky swear to never, ever let Mom know Mr. Jingles was still alive, and she’d kept that promise for twenty years.
Her mother called up the stairs to tell her dinner would start in five minutes. She took a moment to refresh her makeup, grinning as she applied extra eyeliner. More than one battle had been fought during high school over her love affair with black eyeliner, and though she had since given up the look, Abby couldn’t help but revert to her old style whenever she came home. Just knowing how much it infuriated her mother was reward enough. Satisfied with the result, she tossed the eyeliner onto the dresser instead of in her purse where it belonged (another sure way to annoy her mother) and headed downstairs for dinner.
Dinner was everything she’d come to expect at home. Her mother ran a successful catering business and always arranged for her catering manager to wrangle dinner for the monthly get-together. Creamy white and sweetly scented magnolias adorned the dining room table, graciously set with gold rimmed china and intricately scrolled silverware that had been handed down from her great grandmother. There were sliced heirloom tomatoes in various shades artfully arranged with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves and drizzled with dark balsamic vinegar. Mouthwateringly aromatic, rosemary sprinkled chicken breasts were piled neatly on one serving platter, which was flanked by a dish of freshly steamed asparagus sprinkled with lemon zest and sea salt. It was beautiful and perfect, and Abby found she had never wanted a piece of pizza more than at that very moment.
“Nice eyes!” her youngest sister, Julia, giggled as she rushed past Abby to snag the seat furthest from the end their mother always claimed. “You’ve been taking makeup lessons from Taylor Momsen, I see.”
Abby stuck her tongue out and grinned. “Coming from someone who sells the bulk of her makeup to the nursing home, I’m going to take that as a compliment!” Although Julia had just turned thirty a few weeks prior, Abby always felt like they both returned to ten and twelve whenever they were together, and she loved her little sister for it.
Eva, however, was another matter. Even when they were kids, Eva was always the shining star of the family, a mirror image of their mother, with blonde hair and a perfect golden tan, but with ambition and brains to go with it. Now a successful realtor specializing in commercial properties, her older sister had risen rapidly in the ranks of real estate and was the go-to girl in Dallas for anyone looking to flip high ticket commercial properties.
Abby’s black hair, fair skin, and short stature came straight from her daddy, and though no one had ever implied she wasn’t pretty, she often felt as if her mother blamed her for not inheriting the right set of genes. Being around Eva made her feel about two feet tall, and it didn’t help that Miss Perfection never miss an opportunity to point out Abby’s many shortcomings.
“So, Mallory,” Eva said as she daintily speared a slice of tomato, “I notice your parking skills haven’t improved since last month.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, keeping her eyes trained on her plate while trying to hide the smile that threatened to betray her lack of sincerity. “Bug died right as I pulled into the drive.”
“Oh, I’m sure it did,” Eva snorted. “Funny how it never dies anywhere else.”
“I don’t understand what it is with you and that car,” her mother said wearily. “If that magazine won’t pay you enough to afford a decent vehicle, then why do you insist on staying there?”
“It’s a newspaper not a magazine,” she huffed, “and they do pay me enough, but unlike all of you, I’m not obsessed with having some huge, gas-gobbling ode to consumerism—”
“Mother, please don’t get her started,” Eva groaned. “I want to enjoy my dinner, not hear a bunch of idealistic crap about how my Escalade will lead to the end of Western civilization.”
“Language, Eva,” their mother warned.
“It’s okay, Mom, she’s just defensive because the USS Valdez out there barely gets four gallons to the mile,” Abby smirked.
“At least I can afford to buy gas without digging through the sofa cushions!” Eva snapped, and Abby was pleased to note her older sister’s normally flawless complexion was growing splotchy. “Not that I’d ever expect you to understand what it means to work your tail off and get ahead.”
“I bet you know all about putting that tail of yours to work,” Abby snickered rudely. She was gratified to see Eva’s complexion go from flushed to volcanic.
“Enough!” Her mother’s eyes flashed dangerously, and Abby quickly swallowed her smile. “Mallory Dawn, that was rude and filthy, and you will apologize at once.” She fixed Abby with a cold, steely glare until finally she mumbled an apology.
“First of all, my name is Elizabeth Joan, not Mother or Mom. That was fine when you were little girls, but having grown women call me that makes me feel positively geriatric and it ends now. Secondly, Mallory, if you think we believe that car always dies of its own accord in the same spot every month, you seriously underestimate us.”
“It did die!” she protested weakly, but her mother wasn’t buying the lie.
“Once a month I ask you to come here and have dinner with us and enjoy each other’s company, and yet once a month, Mallory, you seem to delight in spoiling everything.”
“Oh sure, blame me for everything!” she snapped. “God forbid you put any blame on your mini-me over there!”
“Mallory Dawn, you watch your mouth with me,” her mother admonished. “My word, every time it’s the same thing! The minute you pull into the drive you go out of your way to ruin everyone’s time with your childish behavior. I simply do not understand what is wrong with you.”
“You need to grow up, Mal,” Eva chimed in. “Just because you’re unhappy doesn’t give you the right to attack me. I don’t deserve your attitude just because you’re angry about your own failures.”
Abby’s hands clenched into angry fists as she looked around the table. Both Julia and her father stared nervously at their plates, while Eva and her mother scowled at her. It was like being fifteen all over again, but not the parts she cared to repeat. Maybe she had been trying to push their buttons, but it had just been in fun. She hadn’t really meant anything by it, but as she felt her cheeks begin to flame, she realized she was mad. In fact, she was beyond mad. She was pissed.
“Well, I’m sooo sorry you don’t like being called Mom, Mom. It must really suck to be constantly reminded that you have such a failure for a daughter!” Abby shoved herself back from the table and threw her napkin across her barely touched plate. “I fucking hate being called Mallory, but you refuse to call me Abby, so I guess we’re both shit out of luck on that, huh?”
“Mallory Dawn, you watch your mouth!” her mother gasped, but Abby was just getting started. Whipping her head around, she redirected her fury towards Eva.
“And you don’t like my attitude? Well fuck you, Little Miss Perfect! You’re right, my car didn’t die! I parked it there so you’d have to drive around the block because I know how much it pisses you off. Poor Eva. I’ll bet you bitched your way into a new crop of wrinkles over it!” She stomped across the room to the archway by the hall, then turned to glare at each of them in turn. Julia’s eyes silently pleaded for her to stop, sit down, let it go. Her father simply stared at her miserably and said nothing. Somehow his silence cut her more than her mother’s words, and she felt tears welling up in her eyes. The thought of crying in front of them only made her madder.
“And you two just sit there and let them say whatever they want without once defending me! Thanks a lot, Dad. Jules. Nice to know I can always count on you two!”
Snorting in disgust at their weak protests, she gave them both a dramatic eye roll. “I’m outta here,” she snapped. It took her three strides to reach the door, and she slammed it loudly behind her as she left the house. She could hear Julia calling for her to come back, but she was in no mood to listen. Breaking into a run, she rounded the end of the drive and headed up the road before her little sister could try to catch her.
Running wasn’t a regular activity for Abby, and by the time she was halfway down the fourth block, an unwelcome stitch took up residence in her side. Clutching her ribs just under her left breast, Abby slowed to a walk, gasping for breath as she went along and desperately wishing she had Mr. Jingles to hug. Without his comforting presence, she opted for a smoke instead. Digging into her hip pocket, she retrieved the crumpled pack and shook out a slightly bent cigarette. Thankfully the neighborhood park lay at the end of the block, and she made her way towards the nearest bench as she lit up her last smoke.
It was one of her favorite places to retreat to whenever she came home. A skateboard park had been put in right after her thirteenth birthday, and she had many fond memories of long afternoons spent there, just her and her board and a few close friends. Sighing gratefully, she flopped down on the bench, draping her arms across the backrest. Memories of happier times rose to the surface, and the knot in her throat began to ease up as she relived the freedom of her youth, at least the part of it spent away from her family. To her relief, the tears that had threatened to spill over finally receded. As much eyeliner as she’d slapped on, she didn’t want to imagine what she would have looked like if the waterworks had cut loose.
Her eyes fell upon a Three Sixty magazine at the end of the bench, and she reached for it curiously. It was a local publication aimed at the skater community, and she hadn’t seen one in years. Flipping through its dog-eared pages made her feel both young and old at the same time. She remembered the lingo, but the players had all changed.
Abby took a slow drag off her cigarette and watched a group of teenagers practice heel flips and rail slides and being cool at the skateboard park. It seemed like just yesterday when she was the one doing darkside grinds and laser flips and hanging with the skater boys, and she could probably still ollie circles around them, but at thirty-two-years-old, they would just think she was weird or a sex pest or something. Probably do anyway, she mused as she pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged on the bench. Sitting here, staring at them like some Mrs. Robinson pedo. Not that she was looking at them in that way, but she doubted any of them would understand. It was a cruel cosmic joke that had forced her to grow up but left her feeling not a day over fifteen, and she wondered if it was that way for everyone.
Judging from the twenty-going-on-forty-year-olds she worked with, she doubted it.
From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a slender blonde girl wearing ponytails watching her from beside one of the mobile ice cream vendors. In one hand she clung to a brown stuffed bunny, in the other an ice cream cone. Beside her stood a tall, attractive cowboy type that Abby assumed was her father. Apparently realizing she was being watched back, the little girl turned to the man beside her and tugged on his sleeve, whispering in his ear when he finally leaned over. He glanced briefly at Abby, then ordered another ice cream cone.
The next thing she knew, the girl was skipping towards her, ice cream in each hand and the giant stuffed bunny tucked tightly under her arm. As the girl came to a stop beside her, Abby was stunned to realize that what she had assumed to be a ten or twelve-year-old was actually a grown woman of at least twenty, perhaps more.
“I like your eyeliner,” she said with a giggle, holding out an ice cream cone to Abby.
“Thanks,” Abby said, uncertain how to react as she accepted the cone. “Um, I like your bunny.”
“I’m Josey,” she said with a grin, and Abby found herself grinning back in spite of the utter weirdness of the whole encounter.
“You’re not a teenager,” the bunny-toting woman observed, and immediately Abby tensed.
“And you’re not ten,” she retorted.
She watched as the woman licked the ice cream from her fingers and then reached into her pocket, pulling out a business card and handing it over. Accepting it hesitantly, she flipped it over and read the front.
“Who the hell is Mr. Green?”
The little blonde giggled and covered her mouth, and Abby was struck by how utterly innocent and childlike she seemed. “Someone you should call, silly!” she giggled as she started to turn away. “I promise you won’t be sorry!”
Abby watched as the strange woman galloped away to rejoin the man she’d thought was her father but now realized must be a boyfriend or husband. With wonder she watched as he grinned and ruffled her hair indulgently, then took her hand and led her towards the movie theater across the street. Flipping the card over, she saw a number on the back, worn and thin and carefully re-written in indigo crayon.
“Why the hell not?” she muttered to no one as she pulled out her phone and began to dial.