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"I'm sorry, he wants me to do what?"
Juli Flynn didn't think to hide the incredulity in her voice. She did, however, think of hiding beneath her mother's kitchen table. If it weren't for the memory of her brother wiping boogers there thirty years ago, she probably would have crawled right under.
Juli stared at her mother. Tina Flynn was chopping carrots for a Jell-O salad that would, in all likelihood, hold as much culinary appeal for the funeral guests as the actual corpse.
"You know you were always Uncle Frank's favorite," Tina said in the same voice she'd used to suggest her children not stick lima beans up their noses. "I think you should be flattered."
"Mom. I'd be flattered if he asked me to read a poem at the funeral or look after his cat or take his clothes to Goodwill. But this-this is just weird."
"Don't be so dramatic, Juli."
"Dramatic? Dramatic is making a deathbed request that your niece travel to the freakin' Virgin Islands to dump your ashes over the edge of a boat near St. John-that's dramatic. Why not spread them off the Oregon coast or on Mount Hood or something?"
Tina finished with the carrots and began chopping beets, her knife making neat little slivers of purple that scattered over the green countertop. Juli sighed and began hunting in the cupboard for sesame seeds to add to the Jell-O.
"Frank had fond memories of his years sailing over there," Juli's mother said.
"He had fond memories of the Polish hooker he traveled with while he was fleeing that federal indictment."
Tina smiled and set her knife down. "That's right-what was her name? Olga or Helga or something like that?"
"Oksana," said Juli, thinking this was so not the point.
Juli closed her eyes, hating the fact that at age thirty-seven, she felt like a petulant toddler. She had a sudden urge to stomp her feet and bang her fists on the counter in a full-blown tantrum.
It's not like she and Uncle Frank had been that close. She'd been living in Seattle for the past six years, coming home to Portland for the occasional holiday. Until last week, she hadn't even seen Uncle Frank since her birthday party a year ago when he'd gotten drunk on a quart of vanilla extract from Tina's baking cupboard and spent the evening pretending to be a stegosaurus. The rest of the family had been embarrassed. Juli had been delighted that, for once, she wasn't the oddest member of the family. That common bond was the reason she and Uncle Frank had always enjoyed a
Well, that, and the fact that advanced dementia had led him to believe his niece was Celine Dion.
"You didn't happen to tell Uncle Frank that I'm-"
"Terrified of the ocean? No, I didn't have the heart to mention that."
Juli nodded and watched her mother consult her handwritten recipe before reaching for the Worcestershire sauce.
"Did Uncle Frank say when I need to complete this mission?" Juli asked, grabbing three packets of orange Jell-O and her mother's fish-shaped Jell-O mold. "Do cremated remains have-um-a shelf life or anything?"
"He didn't really say. He was choking on his tongue a lot there at the end, so it was hard to understand him. Could you hand me that feta cheese?"
Juli gave her the container and scooted a knife out of the way, aware of her mother's tendency to drop sharp objects on her bare feet.
"So maybe you didn't understand him right?" Juli asked hopefully. "Maybe instead of 'throw my ashes off a fishing boat,' he said, 'roll my ass over, you stupid whore'?"
"Those bedsores were sure something! Hand me those Junior Mints?"
Juli sighed, sensing the conversation was going nowhere. Maybe she was arguing the wrong point.
"I can't just pack up and go to St. John. I have a life."
Tina beamed at her daughter. "Are you dating someone new, sweetie?"
Juli scowled. "That's not what I meant. I haven't dated anyone since-well, for a long time."
"Oh. Well, you know it can be a little bit intimidating for some men to date a woman with your particular-"
"Mom, can we not talk about this now?"
"Sweetie, I don't know why you're always so embarrassed about your special-"
"Please, Mom," Juli said weakly, feeling her ears flame the way they always did when someone drew attention to the fact that she was-well, different. She touched her fingers to her lobes, trying to cool them.
"Could we just stick with the subject of Uncle Frank?" she pleaded.
"Of course, dear. Can you hand me the dill?"
Juli spun the spice rack and located the appropriate jar. "I have a job, Mom. I have a bank account that can't exactly handle the strain of a Caribbean vacation."
"Well, Uncle Frank left a little bit of money in his will to cover some of the cost of your travels."
"Okay. That's half the equation. What about my job?"
"Didn't you say they asked for people in your department to volunteer to take a little time off? That sounds so nice."
That sounds like a layoff, Juli thought, biting into a carrot as she watched her mother mix the Jell-O.
Not that the idea didn't hold some appeal. She'd worked in the marketing department of a software company for less than a year and already she was so bored her skin itched. She'd hardly bothered to hide her delight the week before when the vice president had stood at the center of their cube-farm, running his fingers through his comb-over, asking if anyone was interested in a severance package of three weeks' salary and a scone-of-the-month club membership in exchange for "taking a little time off. Indefinitely."
Later that day, Juli had flung herself onto the sofa in her therapist's office and sighed. "I feel like my career is going nowhere," she told Dr. Gordon.
"What makes you say that?" he'd asked, looking wise and vaguely constipated on the edge of his orange armchair.
"The fact that my boss told me yesterday, 'Juli, your career is going nowhere.'"
"Right," Dr. Gordon said, nodding. "And how does that make you feel?"
Juli shot him a look. "Terrific."
Dr. Gordon was not amused. Dr. Gordon was seldom amused. Juli had fantasies about pinning him down on the carpet and tickling him until he peed.
"Juli, we've spoken before about the social oddities you've developed as a coping mechanism to deal with your self-consciousness and your lack of a sense of belonging, which is the direct result of the attention you've generated in the scientific community and the media for your-" He stopped and stared at her, then shook his head. "Are you covering your ears so you don't have to listen, or are you cooling them like you always do when you're embarrassed?"
"A little of both," she admitted, lowering her hands.
"I see," Dr. Gordon said, looking morose. "You're uncomfortable with this subject. Let's talk about your career. What did you want to be when you were a child?"
"The Bionic Woman."
Dr. Gordon didn't smile. "What was your first job after college?"
"I was a newspaper reporter for three months before an on-the-job injury forced me to change careers."
"I fell asleep in a City Council meeting and stabbed myself between the ribs with a pencil." She lifted the hem of her shirt. "Check it out, five stitches right here-"
Dr. Gordon sighed and began to flip through his notes. "Let's go back over some of the other jobs you've held. After you were a reporter, you spent some time as a data analyst?"
Juli lowered her shirttail and sat up straighter. "Oh. Sure, there was that. And marketing, of course. And I got my helicopter pilot license about seven years ago, and there was that stint as a pet store manager, and four months as a scout for forest fires, six months working in that hat shop, and-"
"Juli, your employment history leaves something to be desired."
She nodded, pleased to be understood. "You're right. I've never been a brain surgeon."