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"Have you finished packing?"
"All done. Last night." Everything boxed, taped, stacked in a U-Haul, and ready to go. "But what if I have trouble sleeping out there? It’s so quiet. Maybe I’ll need a prescription or something."
"You haven’t had insomnia for a while."
"No, but I’m not going to be in my bed anymore. I mean, I will—but I won’t. It’s all going to be different. Or the same? I mean"—she takes a deep breath—"I’m going home."
A word that was supposed to evoke happy memories. Christmas. Reunions. Birthdays.
But today it just makes her feel desperate.
"Lots of people move back home, Toni."
She notices he said back home. Back in time. Back on the path of her life.
"But my father roams around all hours of the night. He makes a pot of espresso at midnight and then wonders why he can’t sleep. He’ll probably keep me up too."
"Let’s worry about that when it happens, okay?"
She sighs and goes back to staring at the framed poster on the far wall, an explosion of black and gray drips.
Dr. Weinberg picks up a chocolate-chip cookie from a plate on his desk. She brought him a dozen this morning wrapped in blue-checked tissue paper, stacked together and tied with white ribbons like a New Year’s Eve firecracker. He tells her again how delicious they are.
"Thanks," she says. "Salt. That’s the secret. You always add a dash of salt, but I use extra. It enhances the sweetness. Really opens up the flavors." She starts to expound on the virtues of adding just the right amount of salt to recipes, how many different kinds of salt there are—rock, sea, kosher, fleur de sel—and how her grandmother’s salt and pepper shaker collection inspired her love of vintage dishes. She’s so lost in her reverie that when the doctor’s watch makes a little ping at the end of the hour, it actually surprises her.
Outside on the sidewalk, she buttons up her jean jacket and catches a glimpse of her reflection in the glass door. Chocolate brown eyes, wide mouth, long dark hair looking like it could’ve used a blow-dry this morning.
Why didn’t she dress up? Put on some makeup, at least.
Because the cookies were more important, that’s why.
She sees people hurrying down the sidewalk, hugging themselves against the late April chill. She smiles to herself. New Yorkers are always so eager for the winter to be over, they toss their scarves and gloves at the first sign of spring—then freeze for a month.
She’s the same way.
She takes a spiral-ringed notebook out of her bag and flips to today’s To Do List. She strokes off Cookies for Dr. W. and heads toward the drugstore on the corner.
Inside the entrance, she stops and savors fluorescent lighting for the first time in her life. She looks at the long lines of people waiting at the counter. She is filled with nostalgia. She must be the only person in New York who’s actually going to miss the ubiquitous Duane Reade.
Someone bumps her from behind. "Sorry," she says.
But the man keeps walking, barely noticing her. He has dark trendy hair, an expensive pin-striped suit. "God, I hate my life," he’s saying into his Black-Berry. "I was up half the night singing Bee Gees songs. Remind me never to . . ." He seems lost, checking the signs above each aisle, before disappearing into First Aid.
Toni grabs a shopping basket and wanders through the store, picking up more things than she’d planned. Conditioner. Hand sanitizer. Sunblock. In Stationery she sees them, her favorite spiral-ringed notebooks for her To Do Lists. She grabs a handful and heads for the cashier.
On line, she’s the only person not tapping a foot or looking at a watch.
"God, my head . . ."
She turns to see the man in the pin-striped suit approach a woman standing on line behind her. The woman is in her late twenties, her black coat open to reveal a cashmere sweater. She holds a bottle of Advil and some sodas.
Toni turns forward again.
"What time did you get in?" the woman asks.
"Who knows? But if I have to go to one more karaoke bar with a bunch of guys who can’t—" The violent clatter of tablets. "What is wrong with this thing?"
"It’s childproof." The crack of the plastic seal.
"You don’t have anything stronger—like bullets?" he says. "What the hell’s taking so long? Is it National Trainee Day or something?"
Toni just rolls her eyes.
At the counter, a cashier walks up and unlocks another register, motioning to Toni. "May I help who’s next, please."
Toni goes to step forward, but the man butts in front of her, tossing his Advil on the counter. While he digs for his wallet, his cell phone rings. "Yeah? . . . No, no, he defaults on the debt if"—he seems frustrated, motioning for the woman in the black coat to pay— "if it’s more than six times the cash flow . . . Yeah, that’s what we . . ." He walks out of the store still on his phone. The woman in the black coat smiles and motions for Toni to go ahead.
Out on the street, Toni walks slowly toward the subway, taking in every sight she can. The Starbucks where she used to get green-tea lemonade before her sessions. The diner where she had breakfast with Kevin that time.
She bristles when she sees the man in the suit, pacing the sidewalk outside a black town car. He’s now yelling into his phone.
"That is total bullshit! Then he’s the only goddamn person in the history of"—his voice drops as he notices her; he has that dead look in his eyes Kevin sometimes got when he was on his phone—"in the history of Delaware corporate law to get out of a binding contract!"
Figures, she thinks. Her stroll down memory lane ruined by a self-important Master of the . . .
She stops in her tracks.
Her heart squeezes in her chest when she sees a little girl turn the corner with her mother. The girl has two balloons on different lengths of string, one red, one blue, as she skips along holding her mother’s hand. Toni watches the balloons as they pass. A song is suddenly going through her head.
"Row, row, row your boat . . ."
She feels a deep twist in her stomach.
"Gently down the . . ."
The next thing she is aware of is a swing of sky and tree branches, everything not where it’s supposed to be.
After that, she is drifting. Everything is dark. She tastes copper and salt, like potato chips in her mouth, and if she were a little older she would know that this taste is blood. But she is only three.
Excerpted from By Invitation Only by Jodi Della Femina and Sheri McInnis.
Copyright 2009 by Jodi Della Femina and Sheri McInnis.
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.