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Alana Hawthorne taped shut her last carton of CDs, mostly jazz and soft rock. The job of packing up her condo hadn't taken long. Everything went into boxes, bang, done. Not like when she'd moved here from her childhood home in suburban Milwaukee and had to decide what to take and what to leave, what belonged to her and what to Melanie, all the while trying not to have unsisterly thoughts, such as could she chain Melanie to a downtown parking meter while she packed?
Moving was easier this time emotionally, too, though she'd lived here outside Chicago for six years. Hard to get sentimental about a condo, even in a building she took pride in managing, a career she'd fallen into after helping her grandfather manage a downtown bank building for so many years. This place had none of the charm of the house in Wauwatosa, none of the leaded glass and gorgeous woodwork. Granted, none of the leaks and drafts and questionable plumbing, either. Or the memories, good and bad, contained in each room of the house she and Melanie were raised in.
This time day after tomorrow, Alana would be in Orlando, Florida, in another condo, in a development she'd be managing. She wasn't wild about the move, considered herself thoroughly Midwestern, but Gran and Grandad had sacrificed a decade of what should have been their much-deserved empty-nest years raising two grandchildren. After Gran's fall last month, it was clear what Alana could do to pay them back at least in some small way.
Her cell rang. She paused to write CDs—Bedroom in black marker on the box before scrambling to her feet and grabbing her cell from the oddly bare kitchen counter. The new owners had been impressed by how well she'd kept the place up. Alana didn't mention she'd spent most of her time at Sam's place until they broke up last fall.
She glanced at the display. Her sister. "Hey, Melanie."
"You'll never, ever guess what I have to tell you."
Alana wrinkled her nose. Hello, Alana, how's the packing going? How's your stress level? Need any help? "Good news or bad?"
"Good, fabulous, the best, but like I said, you'll never guess."
"You met a guy."
"Oh." Her sister sounded tremendously disappointed. "Well, yes. But not just a guy, this is the guy."
Alana closed her eyes, dread and fear lifting their little heads inside her, trying to decide if they'd be needed or not. The guy, huh? What was this one in recovery from? Or wanted by the police for? Or down on his luck because of? "That's great, Melanie."
"I am so excited. He's amazing. What's more, you'll really like this one."
"Where did you meet him?" A meat-market bar at closing time? A bus stop? In court?
"Habitat for Humanity."
Alana turned from her kitchen counter to face the curtain-less window. "No kidding. I didn't know you volunteered for them."
"All part of Melanie's New Improved Life. He's straight, sober, responsible, an amazing man. Went to college, everything."
"Everything you think is important."
"Melanie, wow." She actually started feeling hopeful, a huge change from how she usually felt about Melanie's boyfriends, which generally ranked somewhere around despair. "How long have you known him?"
"Long time. A month. Maybe more."
"Really." Hey, Melanie even waited to tell Alana about this one, instead of jumping into I-met-someone-and-love-him after the first date. "This is terrific. I'm happy for you. What's his name?"
Even that was normal. Not Spike or Screech, or that one guy who simply went by Dude. "Good name."
"You'll love him." Melanie blew out a breath, which sounded like a storm blast through the phone. "Um, so, I just… Uh, how are things there?"
Alana's eyes narrowed. Um, so, she just…what? "Fine. Nearly packed. Was there something else you were going to say?"
"Oh. Well. It's just a little thing." She laughed nervously.
No, it was going to be a big thing. "Ye-e-es?"
"I wanted to tell you. We're…moving in together."
Uh-oh. Yellow alert. "In Gran and Grandad's house?"
"It's our house now, Alana."
"I know, but it…" She gave up. Even though her grandparents sold the house to her and Melanie when they moved to Florida, the place would always be theirs in her heart. "Okay, into our house?"
"Yes. I mean, of course you'll have to say it's okay."
"When is he moving in?"
Orange alert. Waiting until the last second to tell Alana?
Or did this Sawyer guy wait until the last second to ask Mela-nie? "You've known him a month? Is that…maybe…rushing things?"
"I know, it seems fast. But it's also really practical."
"Shared bedroom saves gas money?"
Another nervous laugh. "No. He, um, needed a place to live. So I thought this was an obvious solution. To help him out."
"Ah." Homeless guy. Super. Alana let her head bonk back against a cabinet so she was staring up at the smooth, white ceiling. Very uncomfortable position, but it fit the conversation. "Did he get evicted?"
"No, nothing like that. Just…between places, I guess."
She guessed. "He's paying half the expenses, utilities, property tax, etc.?"
"Ye-es, Alana." She sounded like an exasperated teenager. "He promised to share all expenses."
"Did he promise in writing?"
Her sister scoffed. Alana bit her lip. Don't push too hard. "What does he do?"
Red alert. Alana closed her eyes wearily. Male stripper? Female impersonator? Drug dealer?
"He was some kind of lawyer, I guess, but it was too much pressure, so he's between jobs at the moment."
Even better. "How long has he been unemploy—"
"Geez, Alana. I knew you'd do this. I'm a grown-up, remember? Twenty-six? And you're not my mother."
Oh, no. The last of Alana's hope evaporated. Melanie went on the attack like that when she was feeling defensive. She had something to hide about this guy. Something Alana wouldn't like. "Yes, it's your life. But it's also half my house."
"I told you, Alana, he's a great guy, not like the others."
"Really." Alana pulled her head up from the cabinet.
"The last ones were 'not like the others,' too, except for one thing—they were just like the others."
She took a deep breath. She'd moved away from her beloved house and her beloved city partly because of the way she and Melanie got along. Or didn't. That and a job opportunity managing luxury condos for a man who'd known her Grandad. "Okay, I'm sorry. You know I'm just being—"
"No, cautious. Can you blame me?" She kept her voice gen tle. "Seriously? For all I know he's planning to marry you and weasel you out of your half of the house, or take it over for…I don't know, something bad. Invite creepy friends in at all hours who'll trash the place or—"
"He's not like that."
"You said that about the last one. The ex-con who tried to steal the family silver." She shoved herself away from the cabinet, stalked into the living room. Her sister didn't just push her buttons; she hurled grenades and exploded them. In spite of Gran and Grandad's best efforts, Melanie had grown up wild like Alana and Melanie's mother.
Every time Melanie used poor judgment—or, more accurately, no judgment—Alana was catapulted back to the fear and bewilderment of her rocky first decade with Mom, before Gran and Grandad took her and her sister in and introduced them to foreign ideas like good nutrition and routine and stability.
"I'm turning over a new leaf. I promise. This guy could run for office."
"Which means he has affairs, hires prostitutes and/or propositions guys in bathrooms?"
"Ha, ha, ha. You know what I mean."
"Yes. I do." Calm, Alana, calm. Who knew? Maybe Sawyer was okay. Melanie was a grown-up; her life was her own.
But that beautiful house was half Alana's and, legal issues aside, she hated the idea of some guy living there who didn't belong, didn't understand how precious a place it was.
Or was Alana being selfish? Unreasonable? She could be both, she knew. If only Melanie didn't have such a dismal record. "Can you just date him a little longer, get to know him better before he moves in?"
"I've known him a month, what more do you want?"
"Two months? Four? Eight? A year?"
"He needs a place now. I've got one."
"We've got one." Alana sank down onto the one space on her couch not heaped with boxes and tried to calculate. She could put off traveling to Florida by a day or two. She'd wanted to get to Orlando a couple of weeks early before starting her new job, but she didn't absolutely have to be there yet. Her furniture was going into storage regardless, while she stayed with Gran and Grandad. "Here's an idea. How about if I come up and meet him, and if he's all you say, there will be no problem and I'm fine with him moving in."
"For God's sake, Alana, I'm not twelve."
No, you just act like it sometimes. "I know. But the house is half mine, I think it's understandable I'd want to—"
"I think it's understandable that you should trust your own sister."
"Uh…" Based on what? "What is so bad about me visiting?"
Her red alert got redder. She'd just tossed the idea out there, hadn't really thought it through. Moving was plenty stressful enough, all her plans were in place, she hated to delay. But with Melanie objecting…
"It's just…you shouldn't…we shouldn't have to go through this."
"I'd like to meet him."
"Oh, um, well…"
Alana dropped her head into her hands. This was not good. If Melanie didn't want Alana to meet Sawyer, that was proof positive he was more bad news, and Alana needed to get up to Wauwatosa as soon as possible to protect her childhood home and to prevent her sister from screwing up her life exactly the way she always did. Exactly the way their mother had.
In the last rays of twilight traveling north on I94, the familiar skyline of Milwaukee came into view, unimposing compared to the majestic sprawl of downtown Chicago, but home. Alana got a lump in her throat and wished for her boxed-up camera to take a picture she could frame on her wall in Orlando.
She changed lanes, enjoying the light traffic after her years in bumper-to-bumper Chicago and lowered the window a few inches to breathe warm, summery air. Florida would be sweltering at this time of year. What's more, July was bang in the middle of hurricane season. Two already this year had narrowly avoided the state, another, Cynthia, was forming in the Atlantic.
Alana had called Gran and Grandad to let them know of her change in plans, making it sound like, Hurray, Melanie found a great guy and Alana couldn't wait to meet him! She'd added a white lie about needing a few items from the house in case her grandparents got suspicious, knowing Melanie as they did. How many boyfriends had they needed to extract from Melanie's life or steer her around since she hit puberty? They had good practice after raising Alana and Melanie's mom, but still. They shouldn't need to deal with those worries anymore.
Gran had sounded tired, but brushed off questions about her recovery from the fall, saying she was fine. Of course. A building could tip over onto her head and she'd insist no one should be concerned.
Route I94, to Route 41, then west on Lloyd toward Wau-watosa—the city nestled right up to Milwaukee's west side— bumping over the filled potholes pockmarking the street. At 62nd Street, she turned left into The Highlands, a beautiful neighborhood of curving streets graced by elegant old houses. Her grandparents had bought the two-story stone house on Betsy Ross Place in the 1940s when they were first married. Until they moved to Florida six years earlier when Alana graduated from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, there they'd stayed.
Right on Washington Circle, left on Betsy Ross, third driveway on the right. Alana pulled in and peered apprehensively up at the house in the near darkness. No lights on. No cars in the driveway. She hadn't told Melanie she'd decided to come. Sneaky, maybe, but the fight on the phone earlier that afternoon would only have gotten uglier.
She stepped from her Prius, inhaling the fresh warm air, and stretched before she got out her suitcase, drinking in the sight of familiar leafy elms and oaks, beautifully manicured lawns, colorfully landscaped yards, stately grand houses lining the shady streets. The garage turned out to be as empty of Melanie's Civic as the driveway, but a beat-up Chevy sat on the street in front of their house—Sawyer's car? Alana grimaced. She hadn't thought about what she'd do if Melanie wasn't home and he was. That could get awkward, especially if she took an instant dislike to him as she did to ninety-eight percent of Melanie's men—the other two percent took a day or two. With luck, Melanie had stopped for a quick drink after work and wasn't on one of her all-night party binges.
Up the front walk to the white-columned portico, her suitcase bumping up the steps, Alana let herself in with the key she hadn't managed to make herself surrender and stood in the hallway, smelling the familiar smells, emotions swirling in her chest. Happiness to be there mixed with funny pangs of knowing she'd be so far away for so long.
On the wall to her left hung the pictures she'd taken on Mom's last sporadic visit, four years earlier on the occasion of Melanie's graduation from UWM, before Mom took off again, presumably for good this time. In her favorite—their picnic on Lake Michigan's Bradford Beach—she'd caught Gran and Grandad, Melanie and Mom in an impromptu group hug, arms around each other, smiling broadly, hair blowing in the wind—except Grandad's because he no longer had any.
Mom—or Tricia, as she wanted her daughters to call her now that they were grown, which they both refused to do— still called on or around their birthdays, still promised to visit "really soon," still sent haphazard thinking-of-you cards and occasional gifts—crystals and bulky, colorful jewelry, books on spiritual healing—that had nothing to do with who they had become.
"Mel?" Alana wandered into the kitchen, glanced around and made a face. Cleaning was not Melanie's forte, though the place wasn't as bad as Alana had found it on her few other visits over the past six years.
She crossed to the refrigerator, a side-by-side beauty that the deliverymen had barely gotten through the kitchen door. Inside…yuck. Classic Mel. A few take-out containers, condiments, a rind of Parmesan cheese, one egg, half a lemon, pale celery, a shriveled apple and about two dozen beers.
Mmm, mmm, good.
An hour later, she'd gone to the supermarket, come back, eaten a slice of very good pre-cooked tenderloin with veggies and fruit from the salad bar, cleaned up after herself and settled into the living room with a book from Grandad's library, which she and Melanie hadn't been able to get rid of.