In retrospect, I should have known the day was off. From the wee hours of the morning when I awoke to find Ralph—my neighbor’s ninety-pound Rottweiler—in bed with me and hiking his leg, to waking up the second time on my crappy uncomfortable couch with a hitch in my hip. Then the coffeemaker mishap and realizing I was out of toothpaste. Pretty much, all the markers were there. Aunt Ruby would have thumped me in the head and asked me where my Barrett intuition was.
But I never had her kind of intuition.
And Aunt Ruby wasn’t around to thump me. Not anymore. Not even long distance.
“Ow! Shit!” I yelped as my phone rang, making me sling pancake batter across the kitchen as I burned my finger on the griddle.
I’m coordinated like that.
Cursing my way to the phone, I hit speaker when I saw the name of said neighbor.
“How’s my sweet boy?” she crooned.
I glared at Ralph. “He’s got bladder denial,” I said. “Possibly separation anxiety. Mommy issues.”
“Uh-oh, why?” she asked.
“He marked three pieces of furniture, and me,” I said, hearing her gasp. “While I was in the bed. With him.”
“Ralph was in the bed?” Tilly asked.
“That was the part that caught your attention?”
“Well, I just don’t allow him up there,” she said.
“It wasn’t by invitation,” I said. “I woke up to him staring down at me and then he let it rip.”
I liked my neighbor, Tilly. She was from two apartments down, was sweet, kinda goofy, and was always making new desserts she liked to try out on me. So when she suddenly had to bail for some family emergency with her mom and couldn’t take her dog, I decided to take a page from her book and be a giver. Offer to dog-sit Ralph while she was gone for a few days.
“Oh wow, I’m so sorry, Lanie,” she said.
“Not a problem,” I lied. I’m not really cut out to be a giver. “We’re bonding.”
“How’s he eating?” Tilly asked. “Sometimes he’s shy about eating around other people.”
I glanced over to see Ralph lick pancake batter off the cabinet, then sit back on his haunches and lick himself.
“I think he’s doing all right.”
Tilly sighed on the other end. “Thank you so much for this,” she said. “It takes a load off my mind to know he’s taken care of.”
Something in that sentence or in her voice sounded weird.
“So, how long are you going to be gone again?” I asked.
“Um, well,” she began. “Things are a little complicated, so it may be a little bit.”
A little bit. My weird radar perked up.
“Yeah?” I prompted. “Like—a week? What are we talking?”
“Well, I’ll call you in a couple of days when I know more,” she said. “It’s—you know, my dad is really sick, and family just gets so—”
“Your dad?” I asked. “I thought it was your mom.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “That’s what I meant. Sorry, I’m just a little scattered right now.” She laughed. “I’m buzzing on too much coffee, probably.”
Too much something.
“Hey, remember,” Tilly continued. “When you put him outside to leave for work, talk sweet to him so he doesn’t think it’s a punishment.”
“He peed on me!” I exclaimed. “His fragile ego isn’t my biggest concern right now.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll send you some money to clean your mattress. I actually kind of hoped he’d cheer you up.”
What? “Cheer me up?”
“You’ve been so—I don’t know—forlorn?” she asked. “Since your aunt died, it’s like you lost your energy source.”
Damn, that was freakishly observant of her. Maybe she got the Barrett intuition. She nailed it in one sentence. Aunt Ruby was my energy source. Even from the next state over, the woman that raised me kept me buzzing with her unstoppable magical spirit. When her eyes went, the other senses jumped to the fight. When her life went, it was like someone turned out the lights. All the way to Louisiana.
Honestly, I had this thought. That I’d feel her more after she passed. After all, she’d been the one with all the intuition. A rumor that had wagged tongues in Charmed, Texas my whole young life. Something I’d thought was cool when I was little, spent most of my teenage years denying, and mostly forgot as an adult—living hundreds of miles away. Forgot until I’d go for a visit, anyway. One step inside that old house left little question.
There hadn’t been any intuition my way, however. No feelings. No aromas of baked apples or orange peels. No sudden penchant for raw honey or the color blue or the new ability to sew. No Aunt Ruby.
Well, maybe the honey part, but that was just me. You can’t grow up in a bee-farming community and not become a honey addict.
I was truly alone and on my own. Realizing that at thirty-three was sobering. Realizing Aunt Ruby now knew I’d lied about everything was mortifying. Maybe that’s why she was staying otherwise occupied out there in the afterlife.
Then again, lying was maybe too strong a word. Was there another word? Maybe a whole turn of phrase would be better. Something like coloring the story to make an old woman happy.
Coloring with crayons that turned into shovels.
No one knew the extent of the ridiculous hole I had dug myself into. The one that involved my hometown of Charmed, Texas believing I was married and successful, living with my husband in sunny California and absorbing the good life. Why California? Because it sounded more exciting than Louisiana. And a fantasy-worthy advertising job I submitted an online resume for a year ago was located there. That’s about all the sane thought that went into that.
The tale was spun at first for Aunt Ruby when she got sick, diabetes taking her down quickly, with her eyesight being the first victim. I regaled her on my short visits home with funny stories from my quickie wedding in Vegas (I did go to Vegas with a guy I was sort of seeing), my successful career in advertising (I hadn’t made it past promotional copy), and my hot, doting, super gorgeous husband named Michael who travelled a lot for work and therefore was never with me. You’d think I’d need pictures for that part, right? Even for a mostly blind woman? Yeah. I did.
I showed her pictures of a smoking hot dark and dangerous looking guy I flirted with one night at Caesar’s Palace while my boyfriend was flirting with a waitress. A guy who, incidentally, was named—Michael.
But it made her happy to know I was happy and taken care of, when all that mattered in her entire wacky world was that I find love and be taken care of. That I not end up alone, with my ovaries withering in a dusty desert. Did I know that she would then relay all that information on to every mouthpiece in Charmed? Bragging about how well her Lanie had done? How I’d lived up to the Most-Likely-To-Set-The-World-On-Fire vote I’d received senior year. Including the visuals I’d sent her of me and Michael-the-Smoking-Hottie.
So later on, in Aunt Ruby’s last days, when said boyfriend—a very fair, blond-haired GQ-style guy named Benjamin—wanted to come with me to meet the woman that raised me, and be with me at the sparse little funeral, I couldn’t do that. Not when Lanie Barrett’s husband was dark-haired, tall and blue-collar sexy Michael. Which would have come as somewhat of a surprise to Benjamin.
“I know, Tilly,” I said, pulling my thoughts back to her as Ralph finished up cleaning the cabinets and had come nosing around the counter to find the source. “I probably have been in a funk. Just—nothing’s been the same.”
“Well, and Benjamin,” she said, and I could hear the nod.
Damn, I really needed to stop talking to people so much about my personal life. I forgot I’d told her about my boyfriend.
“Benjamin was a douche,” I said, feeding Ralph a burned pancake. Maybe he’d be less likely to pee on me tonight.
Benjamin was a douche. He called me cute.
He didn’t understand the insult, but it was really the whole disclaimer phrase that went with it that got my goat. The words still echoed in my head.
I’ve always wanted that average, girl-next-door, dependable girlfriend. The one that isn’t too sparkly. Cute but not gorgeous.
I wanted to throw up just thinking about it. Nothing in my entire life had made me feel more mediocre than that. Whether it was true or not, your man shouldn’t be the one to say it. Not that I was looking for undying love. I didn’t do love. But I was certainly looking for unbridled lust with someone who thought me above average.
My phone beeped in my ear, announcing another call, from an unknown number. Unknown to the phone, maybe, but as of late I’d come to recognize it.
“Hey Till,” I said, finger hovering over the button. “The lawyer is calling. I should probably see if there’s any news on the will.”
“Go ahead,” she said. “I’ll call you in a few days and see how my Ralph is doing.”
So, not coming back in a few days.
“Sounds good,” I said, clicking over. “Hey, Carmen.”