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April 1995, Suburban San Diego
Violet shushed her sister and pulled the comforter over their heads as their mother, Wanda, opened the bedroom door and peeked into the room. The girls tried unsuccessfully to stifle their giggles.
"Alright, my little criminals," their mother teased. "What mischief are you into now?"
She walked over and pulled the blanket down a little to reveal a mop of tousled chestnut hair. She gave Amber a kiss on the top of her head. Violet peeked over the blanket with twinkling eyes like amethysts.
"What are you doing in your sister's bed, you little scamp?" Wanda asked and then, grinning. She began tickling Violet until she was screeching and squirming and begging for mercy.
"Stop, stop!" she cried.
"Okay," their mother finally relented. "Off to your own bed." She gave Violet a playful slap on her bottom as she jumped out of the bed and raced across the room to her own bed.
"Dad and I will be back soon. Gilecia is downstairs if you need anything."
Amber reached up, circled her arms around her mother's swan-white neck, and murmured, "I love you, Mommy. Where are you going?"
"I love you too, sweetheart. We're going to a party. Go night-night now, girls."
She stood to go. "And please be nice to your sitter. Violet, that means you."
Their mother gently closed the door. Her footsteps faded. Violet sat up. Amber's bed was on the opposite wall. The room warmly lit by the pink Disney Tinkerbell night-light by the center nightstand. On the far corner of the room were a pile of packages with dolls, new dresses, and other girlish fancies from their seventh birthday party earlier that day. The glow-in-the dark star stickers scattered on the ceiling gave the room a whimsical mood.
Violet turned to her sister. "Hey! Amber! Let's go play." Violet jumped out of bed, tiptoed to flip on the overhead light.
"What do you wanna do?" Amber asked nervously. Although she was twenty minutes older than Violet, she tended to be the more cautious child. Amber was the sweet princess, while Violet was "Little Miss Independent" as their mom affectionately put it. They looked alike. However, their parents named them after their eye colors. Amber had golden light-brown eyes; Violet had the lavender eyes.
"Look at our new stuff!" Violet said. She flopped herself down on the ground by her heap of loot. Amber shimmied out of bed and sat alongside her to examine their gifts. Their favorite was the Barbie Doll Chef set. They both jumped to play with it immediately. However, Violet quickly grew bored and looked about for more late-night shenanigans.
"Amber, I got an idea," Violet said. "Dad just got another clock from the store to fix. I want to fix it up for him! I know how to do it. We can play with the dollhouse later."
Amber seemed to have a mixed opinion. "I don't know," she said, "Gilecia can hear us."
Violet rolled her eyes. Sometimes she wished Amber wasn't such a baby. "Don't worry. She is downstairs and she always just sits there and watches TV. Besides, Mom told her we were sleeping."
Violet sprang up and stealthily exited the room. She crept past the living room, keeping her eyes on the babysitter's drowsy head bobbing back and forth as she fought sleep. Soundlessly, she made her way down the hall to her father's office, where the French brass antique alarm clock sat.
One of their father's hobbies was collecting old antique clocks and refurbishing them. Violet had knelt next to him many-a-day, watching him open up the panel, remove the insides, "the guts" as he called them, and put them back together again in a superior form. She was eager to try it.
Her dad just brought this fancy one home from an antique store that afternoon. The clock and tools were on a tray. One day it would sit proudly on the mantel, but Violet knew she could speed up the process. In only a minute, she returned to her room with the project.
The sisters beheld the clock, brassy but immaculately shined, with the fancy Roman numerals on the face. Dad will be so proud when I show him.
"Are you sure you can put it back together?" Amber asked with concern.
"I know how to do it. I've seen it a zillion times. Just watch." Violet placed the clock face down and attempted to open the back panel with a small jeweler's screwdriver while Amber watched.
"I don't want you getting into trouble, Violet," Amber said with pleading eyes. "Why don't you wait for Dad and he can show you how?"
"No way," said Violet stubbornly, yanking the back panel open and gutting the inside components. The whole point was to do it herself. "I got it."
When Violet set her mind to something, she would see it through — no matter what.
* * *
The twins hugged pillows half lying on the light-tan plush carpet watching the Lion King video. Violet glanced back at her mother nesting on the off-white leather sofa, still in her burgundy satin robe. The fragrance of coffee from her cup permeated the room. Her mother's lightly wavy butter-blond hair fell over her shoulder catching the morning light from the window. People always commented that she had her mother's hair, and she was proud of it.
My mother is so pretty. Violet bounced up and sprang to her mother.
"How was the party last night? Mommy." She squeezed next to her mother. Amber joined in.
Wanda laid the coffee cup down on the side table and pulled both girls into her arms. She gave them a brief account of the party. However, the events of the night before replayed in her head in detail.
* * *
What happened at the party the previous night ...
"Here you go," Wanda's husband, Aidan, handed the key of his Mercedes to the valet parking attendant and turned to the passenger side of his vehicle. He extended his arm, and Wanda's bejeweled hand gently accepted. Wanda stretched her right leg to step out of the vehicle. At that angle under the lustrous porch lights of the establishment, she was aware of her husband's burning sight. He was peeking at her porcelain breasts under the V-neck of her red dress. Her onyx, beaded necklace with matching earrings meticulously completed the look. Her husband always told her that she still turned him on even after all these years.
After graduating from Yale Law School, Aidan Swanson became a criminal defense lawyer — and a successful one at that, having won a major drug trafficking case and earning his solid reputation. He ran a successful law firm with three partners and was active in the local Lion Club charity functions. On that particular night, he and Wanda were attending the Lion Club officer installation and new member initiation dinner at a classy Italian restaurant.
The host recognized them immediately and nodded at them. "Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Swanson. This way." They followed his crisp white-jacketed figure as he guided them to a large private room. Aidan had one arm protectively circled around Wanda's waist.
Upon entering the reserved room, Wanda beheld the opulence of the evening. Fresh-cut flowers sprung from dual-handled Italian ceramic vases with an antique finish as the centerpiece on all nine round tables. A lion head fountain gave off a soothing, tinkling sound in the corner, while people mingled and swayed to the soft classical music floating in the air. It felt like socialites arriving at an opera house.
Wanda's face turned as she spotted Kendra waving to her. She was in a sunbeam-yellow gown. Wanda leaned into Aidan, and whispered, "It looks like her hair has grown out since last time," when fine brunette baby hairs were only just starting to sprout from her head.
"You look stunning, Kendra," shouted Wanda, grinning ear to ear. The two women embraced. The warm colors of their dresses were making them appear like a single ember of fire. Aidan came forward, shook the large hand of Gordon, Kendra's husband, and gave him an encouraging light pat on the shoulder.
The family had a friendly professional relationship. Aidan had provided Gordon Purcell and his family legal advice for his accounting and personal financial management firm, which had earned its reputable standing and acquired some major local establishments as clients. Gordon was known for his integrity, trustworthiness, and diligence in his work. As his wife battled repeated miscarriages and ovarian cancer over the last two years, he stood by her side whenever needed, always ready to support her through the valleys. Even though his personal life was turbulent at times, his business grew steadily with a cohesive team under his leadership.
The waiter came around taking the drink orders.
"I'm feeling festive. How about a Cosmopolitan?" Wanda said, smiling like she had decided to do something mischievous.
"Merlot," Aidan said.
"Make that two," Gordon followed.
All eyes moved to Kendra. "Cranberry iced tea," she replied. Gordon took her hand in his and gave it a light squeeze.
* * *
While men centered their conversations on business, the two women exchanged their tales and travails of motherhood until Kendra finally brought up the elephant in the room: the subject of her ovarian cancer.
"Doctor said I was cancer free in my last checkup, and my chemotherapy worked out well for my particular case." She paused before adding, "Chemo was hell. I couldn't be happier to be done with that."
"I can only imagine," Wanda said softly. "And having a child makes it so much harder, I'm sure."
"I'm not afraid of dying. I do just worry about Dylan — he's still so little. The thought of not being able to see him grow up is the hardest part." Kendra's eyes glittered with the formation of tears.
"Oh, I'm sure. But everything will be all right. I'm sure of it." Wanda extended her arms and gave her companion a hug.
The servers delivered delicate appetizer plates to each individual. On each plate sat three large shrimps gathered around a heap of cocktail sauce. The other plate contained an array of appetizers shaped in a flower-like formation, with crab-stuffed mushrooms, prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella, creamy artichoke bruschetta, baked stuffed clams, and Italian rice balls, or "arancini."
Lifting the utensil, Wanda appeared in deep thought about which item to attack first. Kendra stared at the plate absent-mindedly before continuing the conversation. "How nice that your twins will always have each other. I so wish Dylan had that."
Wanda knew Kendra felt guilt about her condition, even as illogical as that was. Wanda would hate to think she couldn't provide for her children. She needed her utmost strength so her children could lean on her. If she couldn't, it eased her soul that the children had each other when she and their father were long gone from this world.
Poor Kendra, Wanda thought as she chewed on a juicy shrimp.
* * *
"Mom, what are you thinking?" The twins' voices brought her back from her reverie. She pulled them in and hugged them tightly. The music of The Lion King filled the background.CHAPTER 2
June 1995, Honolulu, Hawaii
Along with the rest of the audience, Violet and her family watched with bated breath. The silver-haired lady in front of Aidan held up her camera; the man wearing a baseball cap beside her reminded her in a hushed tone to "remember to switch to video, and, oh, remove the lens cap." Everyone was ready to see the courageous coconut tree climber ascend a 40-foot-tall coconut tree. If he slipped, he could easily fall to his death; he had no rope around his waist, no harness, no nothing. He would merely have to rely on his bare feet to push him up the slim, smooth trunk.
It was the second day of the Swanson's long-awaited family vacation in Honolulu, Hawaii. They had decided to kick off their day with a grand tour. Having visited the somber Pearl Harbor, North Shore, and now, they were at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It was a lot for the day; however, they enjoyed every minute. The moment they stepped off the plane, Violet noticed that the air seemed fresher. It felt like there was more oxygen, somehow. Did she detect a slight pineapple scent?
Prevalent earthly troubles seemed impossible in this slice of heaven. Only a few puffs of cotton-ball clouds floated aimlessly in the azure sky. Everything appeared verdant and fertile. As the Polynesian Hula dancers sang and danced to the drums on a floating boat, Violet wondered about the everyday lives of the colorfully-adorned performers. Evidently, they were the happiest people on earth! Heck, she was already happier after just a single day! Life seemed perfect.
That is, except for a few hiccups with Amber on the trip. Ever since they'd arrived, she was acting uncharacteristically clingy, whining for attention every few minutes.
"Mommy, hold me." Amber pulled their mother's arm right as the climber began his upward journey.
Violet shot Amber an annoyed look. Why was she acting like such a baby? How could she be so whiny when they were in Hawaii?
She turned back to the show. Right when the climber made it to the top, he jokingly pretended to fall — only to hoist himself back up. While the rest of the crowd extended their necks and applauded, Amber seemed downright disinterested.
"Honey, are you okay?" their mother asked.
"I'm tired," Amber cried. "When can we go?"
Violet rolled her eyes. They were not going to leave early just because Amber was "tired"!
"Soon, sweetie. We're just sitting here. You can rest your head on me." For the moment, Amber resigned herself to rest her head in her mother's multicolored lap and seemed content in the folds of her dress. She was asleep by the end of the show. Aidan had to carry her.
"It's been a long day," Violet heard her mother say. "We just pushed them too hard."
It wasn't too hard for me, Violet thought.
Amber became increasingly fussy as the day went on. At dinnertime, she wouldn't eat and pushed her tuna tacos around the plate with her fork. She rested her soft cheek against her fist and looked positively miserable — in spite of the fact, this was a gorgeous meal under a hut by the water.
"You don't look good. Let's just go back to the hotel," their mother said, exchanging a worried glance with her husband, who already tossed his napkin on the table in preparation to leave.
"But I don't wanna miss the fire dance," Amber whined.
"I don't think so. You said you're tired, and it's been a long day for everyone."
"But I wanna see the fire dance, too! Fire dance! Fire dance!" Violet chanted.
Their mother looked skeptical.
"I'm fine," Amber said. "I want to go. Please?"
Violet wondered briefly if Amber was saying that because she really did want to see the fiery spectacle or so she wouldn't hold Violet back. However, she didn't think about it too hard. She wanted to see the show.
"Yeah, pleeease?" she chimed in.
Wanda and Aidan reluctantly agreed.
The fire dance was an authentic Hawaiian experience. A line of perfectly bronzed, colorfully dressed dancers in grass skirts filed out holding lit torches. They marched to the sound of a fast-beating drum. The energy was sky high. Violet watched, enraptured.
However, the rousing island dance appeared to have the opposite effect on Amber, who seemed indifferent. Within minutes, she climbed into her mother's lap and fell asleep.
As she watched the undulating dancers, Wanda absent-mindedly stroked her daughter's forehead. She quickly withdrew her hand.
"Aidan," Wanda whispered urgently, touching his knee. "Amber's burning up."
Aidan felt Amber's forehead. "All right, let's go."
Wanda nudged an engrossed Violet as Aidan scooped up Amber, and indicated it was time for them to leave. "But it's not over yet!" Violet whined. Nevertheless, after one glare from her father she piped down.
Once they entered their hotel suite, Violet watched as her parents gently placed Amber in bed, underneath a billowy canopy that fluttered in the breeze of their full-sized window. They hoped leaving the window open would cool her down: her face was tomato red from the fever.
Wanda began undressing Amber to put on her pajamas, and she gasped. "Look at this!" she said to Aidan. Violet peeked over curiously. Amber's knee was swollen like a grapefruit.
"How'd this happen, sweetie?" Mother murmured to her child.
Amber groaned, "I dunno."
Wanda looked up at Violet. "Do you know?"
Violet shrugged. She couldn't remember Amber falling down or hitting her knee.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Love Lock"
Copyright © 2018 Eichin Chang-Lim.
Excerpted by permission of Eichin Chang-Lim.
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