Sara Linton stood at the front door of her parents' house holding so many plastic grocery bags in her hands that she couldn't feel her fingers. Using her elbow, she tried to open the door but ended up smacking her shoulder into the glass pane. She edged back and pressed her foot against the handle, but the door still would not budge. Finally, she gave up and knocked with her forehead.
Through the wavy glass, she watched her father making his way down the hallway. He opened the door with an uncharacteristic scowl on his face.
"Why didn't you make two trips?" Eddie demanded, taking some of the bags from her.
"Why is the door locked?"
"Your car's less than fifteen feet away."
"Dad," Sara countered. "Why is the door locked?"
He was looking over her shoulder. "Your car is filthy." He put the bags down on the floor. "You think you can handle two trips to the kitchen with these?"
Sara opened her mouth to answer, but he was already walking down the front steps. She asked, "Where are you going?"
"To wash your car."
"It's fifty degrees out."
He turned and gave her a meaningful look. "Dirt sticks no matter the climate." He sounded like a Shakespearean actor instead of a plumber from rural Georgia.
By the time she had formed a response, he was already inside the garage.
Sara stood on the porch as her father came back out with the requisite supplies to wash her car. He hitched up his sweatpants as he knelt to fill the bucket with water. Sara recognized the pants from high schoolher high school; she had worn them for track practice.
"You gonna just stand there letting the cold in?" Cathy asked, pulling Sara inside and closing the door.
Sara bent down so that her mother could kiss her on the cheek. Much to Sara's dismay, she had been a good foot taller than her mother since the fifth grade. While Tessa, Sara's younger sister, had inherited their mother's petite build, blond hair and effortless poise, Sara looked like a neighbor's child who had come for lunch one afternoon and decided to stay.
Cathy bent down to pick up some of the grocery bags, then seemed to think better of it. "Get these, will you?"
Sara scooped all eight bags into her hands, risking her fingers again. "What's wrong?" she asked, thinking her mother looked a little under the weather.
"Isabella," Cathy answered, and Sara suppressed a laugh. Her aunt Bella was the only person Sara knew who traveled with her own stock of liquor.
Cathy whispered, "Tequila," the same way she might say "Cancer."
Sara cringed in sympathy. "Has she said how long she's staying?"
"Not yet," Cathy replied. Bella hated Grant County and had not visited since Tessa was born. Two days ago, she had shown up with three suitcases in the back of her convertible Mercedes and no explanations.
Normally, Bella would not have been able to get away with any sort of secrecy, but in keeping with the new "Don't ask, don't tell" ethos of the Linton family, no one had pressed her for an explanation. So much had changed since Tessa was attacked last year. They were all still shell-shocked, though no one seemed to want to talk about it. In a split second, Tessa's assailant had altered not just Tessa but the entire family. Sara often wondered if any of them would ever fully recover.
Sara asked, "Why was the door locked?"
"Must've been Tessa," Cathy said, and for just a moment her eyes watered.
"Go on in," Cathy interrupted, indicating the kitchen. "I'll be there in a minute."
Sara shifted the bags and walked down the hallway, glancing at the pictures that lined the walls. No one could go from the front door to the back without getting a pictorial view of the Linton girls' formative years. Tessa, of course, looked beautiful and slim in most of them. Sara was never so lucky. There was a particularly hideous photo of Sara in summer camp back in the eighth grade that she would have ripped off the wall if her mother let her get away with it. Sara stood in a boat wearing a bathing suit that looked like a piece of black construction paper pinned to her bony shoulders. Freckles had broken out along her nose, giving her skin a less than pleasing orange cast. Her red hair had dried in the sun and looked like a clown Afro.
"Darling!" Bella enthused, throwing her arms wide as Sara entered the kitchen. "Look at you!" she said, as if this was a compliment. Sara knew full well she wasn't at her best. She had rolled out of bed an hour ago and not even bothered to comb her hair. Being her father's daughter, the shirt she wore was the one she had slept in and her sweatpants from the track team in college were only slightly less vintage. Bella, by contrast, was wearing a silky blue dress that had probably cost a fortune. Diamond earrings sparkled in her ears, the many rings she wore on her fingers glinting in the sun streaming through the kitchen windows. As usual, her makeup and hair were perfect, and she looked gorgeous even at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning.
Sara said, "I'm sorry I haven't been by earlier."
"Feh." Her aunt waved off the apology as she sat down. "Since when do you do your mama's shopping?"
"Since she's been stuck at home entertaining you for the last two days." Sara put the bags on the counter, rubbing her fingers to encourage the circulation to return.
"I'm not that hard to entertain," Bella said. "It's your mother who needs to get out more."
Bella smiled mischievously. "She never could hold her liquor. I'm convinced that's the only reason she married your father."
Sara laughed as she put the milk in the refrigerator. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw a plate piled high with chicken, ready for frying.
Bella provided, "We snapped some greens last night."
"Lovely," Sara mumbled, thinking this was the best news she had heard all week. Cathy's green bean casserole was the perfect companion to her fried chicken. "How was church?"
"A little too fire and brimstone for me," Bella confessed, taking an orange out of the bowl on the table. "Tell me about your life. Anything interesting happening?"
"Same old same old," Sara told her, sorting through the cans.
Bella peeled the orange, sounding disappointed when she said, "Well, sometimes routine can be comforting."
Sara made a "hm" sound as she put a can of soup on the shelf above the stove.
"Hm," Sara repeated, knowing exactly where this was going.
When Sara was in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, she had briefly lived with her aunt Bella. The late-night parties, the drinking and the constant flow of men had finally caused a split. Sara had to get up at five in the morning to attend classes, not to mention the fact that she needed her nights quiet so that she could study. To her credit, Bella had tried to limit her social life, but in the end they had agreed it was best for Sara to get a place of her own. Things had been cordial until Bella had suggested Sara look into one of the units at the retirement home down on Clairmont Road.
Cathy came back into the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She moved the soup can Sara had shelved, pushing her out of the way in the process. "Did you get everything on the list?"
"Except the cooking sherry," Sara told her, sitting down opposite Bella. "Did you know you can't buy alcohol on Sunday?"
"Yes," Cathy said, making the word sound like an accusation. "That's why I told you to go to the store last night."
"I'm sorry," Sara apologized. She took a slice of orange from her aunt. "I was dealing with an insurance company out west until eight o'clock. It was the only time we could talk."
"You're a doctor," Bella stated the obvious. "Why on earth do you have to talk to insurance companies?"
"Because they don't want to pay for the tests I order."
"Isn't that their job?"
Sara shrugged. She had finally broken down and hired a woman full-time to jump through the various hoops the insurance companies demanded, but still, two to three hours of every day Sara spent at the children's clinic were wasted filling out tedious forms or talking to, sometimes yelling at, company supervisors on the phone. She had started going in an hour earlier to try to keep on top of it, but nothing seemed to make a dent.
"Ridiculous," Bella murmured around a slice of orange. She was well into her sixties, but as far as Sara knew, she had never been sick a day in her life. Perhaps there was something to be said for chain-smoking and drinking tequila until dawn after all.
Cathy rummaged through the bags, asking, "Did you get sage?"
"I think so." Sara stood to help her find it but Cathy shooed her away. "Where's Tess?"
"Church," Cathy answered. Sara knew better than to question her mother's disapproving tone. Obviously, Bella knew better, too, though she raised an eyebrow at Sara as she handed her another slice of orange. Tessa had passed on attending the Primitive Baptist, where Cathy had gone since she and Bella were children, choosing instead to visit a smaller church in a neighboring county for her spiritual needs. Under normal circumstances Cathy would have been glad to know at least one of her daughters wasn't a godless heathen, but there was obviously something that bothered her about Tessa's choice. As with so many things lately, no one pushed the issue.
Cathy opened the refrigerator, moving the milk to the other side of the shelf as she asked, "What time did you get home last night?"
"Around nine," Sara said, peeling another orange.
"Don't spoil lunch," Cathy admonished. "Did Jeffrey get everything moved in?"
"Almo " Sara caught herself at the last minute, her face blushing crimson. She swallowed a few times before she could speak. "When did you hear?"
"Oh, honey," Bella chuckled. "You're living in the wrong town if you want people to stay out of your business. That's the main reason I went abroad as soon as I could afford the ticket."
"More like find a man to pay for it," Cathy wryly added.
Sara cleared her throat again, feeling like her tongue had swollen to twice its size. "Does Daddy know?"
Cathy raised an eyebrow much as her sister had done a few moments ago. "What do you think?"
Sara took a deep breath and hissed it out between her teeth. Suddenly, her father's earlier pronouncement about dirt sticking made sense. "Is he mad?"
"A little mad," Cathy allowed. "Mostly disappointed."
Bella tsked her tongue against her teeth. "Small towns, small minds."
"It's not the town," Cathy defended. "It's Eddie."
Bella sat back as if preparing to tell a story. "I lived in sin with a boy. I was barely out of college, just moved to London. He was a welder, but his hands . . . oh, he had the hands of an artist. Did I ever tell you "
"Yes, Bella," Cathy said in a bored singsong. Bella had always been ahead of her time, from being a beatnik to a hippie to a vegan. To her constant dismay, she had never been able to scandalize her family. Sara was convinced one of the reasons her aunt had left the country was so she could tell people she was a black sheep. No one bought it in Grant. Granny Earnshaw, who worked for women's suffrage, had been proud of her daughter's brazen attitude and Big Daddy had called Bella his "little firecracker" to anyone who would listen. As a matter of fact, the only time Bella had ever managed to shock any of them was when she had announced she was getting married to a stockbroker named Colt and moving to the suburbs. Thankfully, that had lasted only a year.
Sara could feel the heat of her mother's stare bore into her like a laser. She finally relented, asking, "What?"
"I don't know why you won't just marry him."
Sara twisted the ring around her finger. Jeffrey had been a football player at Auburn University and she had taken to wearing his class ring like a lovesick girl.
Bella pointed out the obvious, as if it was some sort of enticement. "Your father can't stand him."
Cathy crossed her arms over her chest. She repeated her question to Sara. "Why?" She waited a beat. "Why not just marry him? He wants to, doesn't he?"
"Then why not say yes and get it over with?"
"It's complicated," Sara answered, hoping she could leave it at that. Both women knew her history with Jeffrey, from the moment she fell in love with him to their marriage to the night Sara had come home early from work to find him in bed with another woman. She had filed for divorce the next day, but for some reason, Sara was unable to let him go.
In her defense, Jeffrey had changed over the last few years. He had grown into the man she had seen the promise of almost fifteen years ago. The love she had for him was new, in its way more exciting than the first time. Sara didn't feel that giddy, I'm-going-to-die-if-he-doesn't-call-me sort of obsession she had experienced before. She felt comfortable with him. She knew at the end of the day that he would be there for her. She also knew after five years of living on her own that she was miserable without him.
"You're too proud," Cathy said. "If it's your ego "
"It's not my ego," Sara interrupted, not knowing how to explain herself and more than a little resentful that she felt compelled to. It was just her luck that her relationship with Jeffrey seemed to be the only thing her mother felt comfortable talking about.
Sara went to the sink to wash the orange off her hands. Trying to change the subject, she asked Bella, "How was France?"
"French," Bella answered, but didn't give in that easily. "Do you trust him?"
"Yes," she said, "more than the first time, which is why I don't need a piece of paper telling me how I feel."
Bella was more than a little smug when she said, "I knew you two would get back together." She pointed a finger at Sara. "If you were serious about getting him out of your life the first time, you would've quit your coroner job."
"It's just part-time," Sara said, though she knew Bella had a point. Jeffrey was chief of police for Grant County. Sara was the medical examiner. Every suspicious death in the tri-city area had brought him back into her life.
Cathy returned to the last grocery bag, taking out a liter of Coke. "When were you going to tell us?"