Chapter One

When my mother made an appearance in my dream, yelling and screaming at everyone she came into contact with, I was certain of two things. The first was that though I hadn't seen her in years, she looked fantastic. Her hair was cut into a short, sleek style just below her ears. Her clothes fit like she'd created a bodysuit out of sheer will to make other women insecure and every man desire her.
I knew for a fact my mother had gained at least thirty pounds since the last time I'd seen her, but for some reason, my subconscious still pictured her the way she'd been for most of my childhood. Beautiful. Seductive. Someone you avoided at all costs if you were smart.
In the dream, my family and I were all together, even my cousin Cyrus, who only came around once a year, and that was after we threatened to visit him. I was sitting at a table, during an elegant dinner of some sort, in between my stepmother and my dad.
I think I was being celebrated for something. Because the spectators there kept clapping and gawking at me. I savored the attention while also being embarrassed by it, an ongoing issue of my life.
Then my head snapped up at the sound of her voice, her yelling at a waiter, or maybe one of my sisters. She hated them almost as much as she hated me, but not quite as much as she despised Marie, my stepmother. The best person I knew, not counting my dad.
I remember thinking if I didn't glance at her, didn't make eye contact, my mother might magically disappear. Then I could pretend she'd been an aberration, something my mind conceived in an attempt to not enjoy the events properly, like some kind of self-flagellation.
Anyway, she saw me and, mid-rant, smiled so big and wide, I could see all the lines of her face. Ones she carefully hid when we were together in real life.
On her dangerously high stilettos, she ran toward where I sat, frozen, and pulled me into a hug. So that was the second, most important clue I'd gotten that I was dreaming. Or having a nightmare. Because she and I would never, never get along that well. And yes, I'd heard the song. Had maybe even sung along with it on occasion. But I'm saying it anyway. Never.
She hated me. Despite my trying to be good, and loving each person I had in my life, too much, I returned her feelings equally. Well, I endeavored to. But if I never saw her again, I'd die happily. If I never heard her name again, even better.
Vivian felt the same.
She approached my mother, slapped her, and that's usually where the recurring images ended. I never got to see how everyone else perceived that slap. Never got to see my mother's reaction. To see if she was even embarrassed at being hit by my seventy-year-old step grandmother.
I never got to share a commiserating look with my dad. We always, whenever she came around, were the only people who understood just how mortifying it was to have her remind us of the past. To instill the message that maybe we didn't belong with the new family we'd found.
That maybe, somehow, she'd infiltrate it and ruin what we'd learned to trust and depend on, what we'd learned to value.
When I jerked awake, rubbing my eyes like a child, my curly black hair in my face, I surveyed the rest stop I had pulled into for only a moment. I'd told myself it was going to be quick, even as I'd taken off my seatbelt and rested my head against the steering wheel.
Once I'd gotten out and stretched, I followed the few people that were headed into the small, restroom structure. It did not smell great, and I vowed to plan my stops better. And maybe just relinquish drinking liquids until I arrived at whatever hotel I was crashing in.
I'd been driving for only a day and hadn't regretted my impulsive decision to leave yet. But the wet toilet paper I discovered stuck to my shoe was definitely the first clue that, maybe, I shouldn't have been so eager to leave my beautiful apartment.
I turned the radio up once I was back in my car, trying to drive out thoughts of Jalen and the home we'd shared. Did he realize yet that I wasn't coming back? He hadn't texted, not that I'd been studying it obsessively or anything.
It was kind of strange, though. The farther I got from New York, the less I checked. In my mind, I didn't even miss him. I was glad to be rid of the chain I'd begun to feel wrapped around my body whenever we were in the same room.
He probably wouldn't even notice for a few days. I doubted he'd lift his head from those video games to realize there was no one present to nag him to eat. So I absolutely wasn't imagining his heartbroken face when he comprehended I was gone.
Food. Food would be a good distraction. But not just fast food, which I'd been eating for the last day. I'd find a grocery store and get a bunch of prepared salads. And a cooler maybe. Then get out of Pennsylvania as fast as possible. Or was it Ohio? I couldn't be a hundred percent sure what state I was in without looking at my phone.
It was Ohio according to the map application.
I was ashamed I'd had to look that up. But I told myself, that was what I got for never driving or flying anywhere. I generally hated both, which made it amazing and mature of me to have moved across the country in the first place.
The sound of frantic barking drew me like a magnet, closer to the store I'd picked but off to the side, toward a tented area. I'd never owned a dog, but I'd always loved them. When I was out for a walk and there was one that saw me and just had to come perform a personal inspection, after the owner checked to see if it was okay, I held out my hand, wishing I'd had dog treats or some meat in my pocket.
The simple happiness on their faces when you scratched behind their ears delighted me. I found myself wishing humans could like me that easily. But they were a lot of responsibility. Dogs, I mean. Though I wasn't a hundred percent positive since I didn't actually know anyone with a steady pet.
But Melanie, Jalen's sister and my best friend, yes, that was complicated, worked at an animal shelter. She frequently went on rants, long ones, usually when she was drunk, about people who mistreated their animals. I'd learned to not get her started on what people did to black cats during Halloween, or how many people dumped dogs after Christmas. Or how many actually stole animals from people so that her center was constantly turning away red-eyed owners looking for their beloved French Bulldogs.
I tolerated Melanie well when she talked about work. It was easy to see that if she had the room, Mel would adopt them all and never let go. Despite her asking me to go down and volunteer, I rarely went. Except for recently. I couldn't handle all the little faces, begging me to adopt them. I was weak. And I'd lived in an apartment that hadn't allowed animals.
Now, for some reason, I failed to resist. My living situation had gotten worse. So what did I think I was doing creeping up to the puppies like a lion messing with her cubs, ones that were jumping up in excitement as I approached the circular gate where they were caged?
One in particular couldn't contain herself. She barked and jumped on hind legs, standing upright on them for quite a while. Like she was just waiting for me to reach down and rescue her, which I did, with no thought or concern for being bitten. Something so cute would never hurt me. I was counting on that.
In between the licks and the body shaking, I took in the light brown puppy with white mixed in throughout her coat, and the biggest, floppy ears I'd ever seen on an animal. It could probably fly with those things if it worked out how to flap them.
I rubbed in between them as I saw someone official approaching me. He was wearing a green shirt with a name tag, and he was eyeballing me like I was a gullible fool who'd fallen for a carefully laid trap. He wasn't wrong.
"How's it going?" he said as an introduction, taking the pen off his clipboard. He gestured toward the dog. "She likes you."
"Of course she does. She sensed a sucker."
He laughed, not disagreeing.
I concentrated on what was important. "It's a girl?"
"Yes. She was raised with her littermates, but the owner had some financial trouble and couldn't handle the cost anymore. So they were brought here." He motioned to the dog. "This little beauty is the only one left."
"Oh. You're trying to break my heart, aren't you?" I asked.
I wanted to tell him to pause the sales pitch. There was no way I was leaving her behind. I was already in love.
"Diva is an eight-month-old mixed-breed of a Beagle and Yorkie, and something else we think but we're not sure what."
So she was a mess. "Diva?" Had I heard that right? Was this guy messing with me? But he couldn't be. He'd have no notion what that word meant to my family. The idea that the first one I'd picked up was named Diva had to be another sign I was destined to have this dog. "Is that really her name?" I laughed. "Because I'm definitely keeping it if it is."
"The owner's kids named her apparently. Borkies are an energetic breed and they're known to bark a lot. So she'd probably do better in a house with a yard. Do you have the space she'd need?"
Did he say Borkie? Why did I love that so much? I searched the guy's expression. He genuinely seemed concerned that the dog went to the right home. Being friends with Mel, I knew it was because if I couldn't handle the demand having a dog would put on my life, I'd be more likely to dump her somewhere one day.
Melanie would approve of this guy being responsible. So I thought about it. Except for the house I'd lived in with Dad and Marie, I'd always had an apartment. And technically, I was homeless. I supposed I could rent a house if my parents didn't want the dog around.
Would she get bigger? I liked the idea the little pipsqueak that fit in my arms could sprout up into a real dog, maybe the kind I could take running. If she didn't grow enough, or got tired easily, I could always purchase one of those strollers. Yes, maybe I'd look ridiculous as I pushed her, but I bet it would be a good workout. I always imagined I'd reserve that for my children, not that the outlook of having any was within reach.
I considered my sisters, the ones who didn't even know I was coming home. They'd love the name, I was sure. I pictured myself asking "Where's Diva?" and their replies of "Which one? Mom, Sadie, and Grams are all here."
The three of us had begged for a dog before our brother was born. Once we had him to play with and dress up, and chase around the yard, we'd forgotten our previous obsession.
Making a decision like this felt like I was staking a claim of sorts. I was doing something of which Jalen would not approve, something he would caution me against.
I was busy getting my face licked and needed a few seconds to wipe it clean before I answered. "I have the room," I assured the sales guy. "She'll have everything she needs with me." Maybe I was laying it on extra hard, but there was a couple standing too close, eyeing Diva like they were just waiting for me to put her down before they pounced.
"Then enjoy your puppy."
I spent the next few minutes signing papers. He gave me a guidebook that had two full pages of all the things they recommended new owners get. When he hinted I head into the pet store before leaving, the sense I'd been duped settled once again.
But I didn't care. They laid those traps because they worked.
The truth was, I could use a friend. One who wasn't a constant reminder of the boyfriend I'd just broken up with, or the disappointment in me I was sure Melanie felt.
By the look in dog's eyes, the eyes that were still begging me to not regain my sanity, she could use a friend as well.
Someone should have warned me that dogs vomit in moving cars.
After our shopping trip that had lasted an hour, (who knew dogs needed so much stuff), I'd put Diva in the little bed I'd gotten her, then fastened her seatbelt through the leash.
We were ready to go.
Yes, I could, and should, have put her in the new carrier. But I'd thought it was mean when I was planning to be in the car for several hours. Once she got sick on my beautiful leather seat that had smelled new, I regretted my moment of leniency.
"You just had to do that," I scolded, using a voice that did not sound remotely threatening. "My parents gave me this car, you know. They're not going to appreciate smelling your insides the next time they ask for a ride."
She pleaded up at me to not be mad. And for the first time, that made me envision her going to the bathroom on carpets. Was she potty trained? That question made me think of the hotel I'd intended to drive to, and then I wondered if they even allowed animals.
Miles later, I decided to pull over and check. That's when I realized my phone was nowhere to be found. It was amazing to me the level of panic I felt. I was a woman traveling alone. I hadn't told anyone where I was or where I was going. And I'd just lost my last remaining tether to humanity.
I checked everywhere. Under the seat. In the cracks on the side. Even under the dog. I met her eyes that were watching me with concern. "I don't suppose you've seen it?" I asked, leaning over to scratch her chin.
Meeting her eyes, I flashed back to being in the store. To, when after I got Diva on a harness and leash, she'd chased her tail for a while, knocking down some stuffed animals in the process and then pouncing on those.
I'd put my phone down to pick them up. And that was the last I remembered seeing it.
"So it's all your fault," I said, a strange, giddy feeling starting to overtake me. There was no way for me to reach anyone. The idea that the reverse was true scared me a little, but I decided to embrace my mistake.
I'd have to get one eventually. I'd wait until I'd driven a few days before I did. I had a brief worry for my car breaking down. But it was practically brand new, and having lived in a city for the last five years, I never drove it. Because of that, I wasn't the best driver. Studying a map and controlling the car probably wasn't a good strategy.
"We're going to have to find a place to sleep," I told Diva. "Then we can figure out where we're going."
It was easier than I'd thought it would be. Saying a mental goodbye to my other reservation, I resolved to locate the first hotel in the nearest city that I could. Since there was a big sign on the highway for a recognizable chain, I started there.
I tucked the ten-pound Diva under my coat, just in case, then opened my door before the valet guy could. "Good evening," he said. "Can I…oh."
He, a grown man, began making baby noises as he took in the dog, who wouldn't stay concealed. "Does this place accept animals?" I dared to ask.
He emerged from his love fest. "No. I'm sorry we don't."
My shoulders slumped. This was why people had phones. I was doomed to go from hotel to hotel, trying to find one that didn't have any restrictions.
The man inspected the many bags I had in the backseat, filled with most of my clothes and anything else I'd managed to grab. He gestured towards them. "Just put her in one," he said quietly. "They'll never know. Do you have puppy pads? Or a travel kennel?"
Hours earlier, I wouldn't have personal experience buying either. Now, my eyes lit up. "I have a whole box in the trunk." I shouldn't have mentioned that. I also had some of my swords back there. I'd been teaching myself to wield them for a few months. It was slow going.
The man nodded, the decision made. "I'll bring it all up for you. Don't worry."
"I don't have a room yet. I was hoping this place had availability."
He held out his hands.
I hesitated. But if I was willing to trust this man with my beloved car, then I should be willing to give him Diva. I'd never admit it was harder than I thought it would be.
He was gentle as he took the dog from me.
And when I returned minutes later with my room key and a twenty in my hand for a tip, he was waiting, the bags I'd pointed to on the roll cart thing, including one that yipped when it saw me coming.
"And they say strangers aren't nice," I cooed to Diva, once our room door had closed behind us as the valet left.
I didn't relish sneaking into every hotel I chose. So once the dog was sleeping in my lap, I found my laptop and rearranged where we'd be stopping. I also got a piece of paper, to meticulously write out the directions.
My dad had insisted I learn how to use a map. He spent a little time each year making sure I knew how to read one, conveniently starting right around the time I got my license. He did the same for Hazel and Jade, but I always suspected he didn't believe they'd ever really need the skill. But me. For me he'd say, "You never know when you're going to lose your phone."
I'd have to tell him how prophetic those words had been. Though, maybe not. I was notorious for losing things. I had no need to brag about it.
My hand was cramping by the time I finished writing out the highways and turns I'd take to get home. I required a phone. There was a reason everyone had an addiction. Who was I to say it was wrong?
I had to stop in a big city where dogs were welcomed everywhere. Where I could shop for a new phone without worrying I'd be annoying the store owners by Diva's presence.
There was only one place I knew of between Ohio and Arizona where that was allowed, a place close to home and on the way.
Las Vegas it was.

Chapter Two

Diva, maybe feeling like her namesake for all the people I respected that actually acted that way, stood up the moment we drove onto the Vegas strip, the lights seeming to beckon her the way seeing me had. She stood on her tiny legs, barking, looking over her shoulder at me to see my reaction to her reactions.
It was like having an intelligent, attention craving toddler on the seat next to me.
I hadn't spent a lot of time around children, as an adult. My sister had a daughter, but she was the only one I knew personally. And except for when she'd been born and hadn't done much but sleep and stare at the ceiling, she and I had never interacted much. She was cute, though. But I couldn't imagine her being any more fun than my new dog. I had a feeling Jade wouldn't agree with me.
Once I'd located my hotel, Diva and I went shopping. And if I thought I'd look weird walking a dog with a jeweled collar, that was nothing compared to the other dog lovers I passed. Dogs in purses and dogs in strollers, of course. The one I really admired was the man who had a puppy strapped to his chest, like a baby, making it easier for him to run across lanes instead of waiting at the crosswalk like a patient human being.
"Why is everything here so expensive?" I asked Diva, after I spent thirty dollars on an alcoholic drink that came in a large container with an even larger straw.
I'd never realized that about Vegas. The last time I had been there was when I'd turned twenty-one. Jade, Hazel, and I celebrated together, and they had refused to let me pay for anything. I'd have to thank them for that. I'd spent so much of that weekend in a drunken haze, the last thing I'd thought of was the expense.
"Hello! Can I help you?"
I rotated toward the voice, Diva now on her leash, as we walked deeper into the store. It was a little overwhelming for me. I was genuinely more comfortable shopping on my computer, from the safety of my apartment. Salespeople pushing things made me nervous. And when I felt that way, I got sweaty. Yes, I might get a phone. But I'd need a shower right afterwards.
"Hi," I squeaked. "I lost my phone and wanted to get a new one."
I held Diva closer, making eye contact with the woman, who was delighted.
The bad news for her was, Jalen had apparently signed me up for a warranty. So I got a substantial discount. When I thought about him sitting on the couch, having just bought me a phone for the first time on our shared plan, my heart gave a little tug. And to my embarrassment, I found myself getting teary eyed while some teenager assured me all my numbers and photographs were intact.
Five days since I'd left him, and I was replacing things left and right, things he'd have nothing to do with. I couldn't read a text and reminisce over how carefully he'd put on my screen protector. Or about the day we'd accidentally switched phones and he had to carry my sparkly, purple case that he teased made him want to get his nails done to match.
I got distracted as my phone, once on, started beeping, green bubbles popping up. I examined the screen and confirmed they were texts, mostly from a group one that included my sisters, our brother Gray, and Cyrus, our cousin.
The boys didn't participate much. But they were offended when we took them off and just talked amongst ourselves. So we had to include them again, and now, they were much happier.
When I saw one from Jalen, I resisted temptation, put my phone in my pocket, and paid my bill. Then I practically ran out of there. If I was going to break down, I'd do it in the privacy of my hotel room. With only my dog as a witness.
I didn't cry. Jalen's text was more of a tirade, sent hours after I'd first left. He and I were pretty childish when we fought. At least, lately we had been. When we'd first started dating, we didn't fight. What was there to argue about? We'd been happy. Life had been easy for us. We didn't agonize about money or about what we wanted to do with our lives. We never had to struggle over our feelings. We'd seen each other and almost immediately, we'd fallen in love.
I'd been warned it wouldn't last. Mostly by Jade.
It wasn't that she rooted for us to fail. It was that she was the most practical of the three of us. She didn't believe anyone had a perfect journey in life.
But for those initial years with Jalen, mine had been close.
Where the hell are you? That was the first text, followed by a couple of swears and demands for me to answer. After that had been a bunch of phone calls.
I honestly didn't understand why he was so concerned about my whereabouts. It felt like he was having a tantrum, wanting a toy he'd long ago put down that had suddenly disappeared, making him realize how much he'd liked playing with it. Maybe he was just worried someone else would see the value in what he had abandoned. But I wasn't a toy, and I'd had enough. And the last thing I needed was someone else to disappoint me.
I erased his texts quickly. Sure, most of them mentioned how ridiculous I was for leaving. And I was reinforcing that immaturity by taking such satisfaction in pressing delete. But it was the effort that counted. I had no desire to look at them again and obsess when I couldn't sleep. Diva licked my hand, so at least someone else approved my decision.
My sisters, though. Their texts I laughed at, feeling excitement, knowing I was only three hundred miles away and they had no clue. I couldn't keep a secret from them. And I was terrible at surprises. In my mind, it was too much fun getting everyone's reactions and making them happy. I never made it long, and everyone knew not to tell me something if they wanted to hide it from the rest of the family.
But now, now was my time to win.
Reading back through the messages, I realized they'd been wanting me to settle a debate about what movie we'd seen the night before Jade's wedding, but as the hours passed and I hadn't replied, they'd started to panic.
I couldn't stop my smile as I followed the progression of their conversation, as they'd argued back and forth. Then the tone had turned to distress as they speculated about my schedule, whether they should call Jalen's number, or if they should get Marie and Dad involved.
Even Cyrus and Gray had removed their heads from whatever cloud in which they'd been stuck to voice concern. In between suggestions of trying to solve Hazel and Jade's disagreement, they asked that someone let them know when I was found.
It was satisfying to know that if I'd died tragically on the side of the road, someone might notice.
I'd always been loved and shielded by Hazel and Jade. Ever since meeting me they welcomed me into their group. Years later, Marie told me all about how they'd argued over which one of them got to share a room with me, but I hadn't known that at the time. To me, they'd just shown up, all ready to be my friends, no questions asked.
When Melanie heard I had not one but two stepsisters she, and most people, made commiserating faces. I had to assure them that mine were different. Though it couldn't be helped that they'd be closer. That I'd always be a little bit like an outsider. I never blamed them for that. It was only natural.
And that was before I even added in Teresa, constantly coming in to remind me that yes, no matter how much I wished it, Marie was not my mother.
Once I'd emailed Jade, days ago, using my computer to let her know I'd lost my phone, the texts had stopped after a few smiley faces of recognition.
Now that I was safely in my room, the dog sleeping beside me on the bed, I pushed Hazel's name on my new phone's display. Sometimes there was a decision to be made about which sister to call, but this time, it was easy.
She'd once been a night owl, but ever since her baby Chloe was born, Jade said she often dropped off at eight and didn't wake up until the next morning. She used to fall asleep on the couch with the baby until her husband coaxed them into a bed. She'd since learned to get on more of an actual schedule.
"Finally," Hazel screeched through the phone. "We were starting to imagine your funeral. It was going to be a great party."
I laughed, glad I'd called. My sisters were the perfect distraction from heartache. "I know," I said. "I haven't had my phone for days. It's been torture."
"What happened to it?"
Without mentioning the dog, I told her about losing it in the store, dodging her questions, lying really, about why I hadn't just gone back. "It was gone when I checked, but they said at the phone place it would be wiped. Not that I have anything interesting in there if someone looked."
Hazel agreed too fast when she said, "Very true."
"So what have you been doing? How's Jade?"
"I'm good. She's good. Though that girl is always napping."
"I know. And I never get to talk to her between that and the time difference," I said, realizing now we'd get to talk more often. Maybe even see each other more than once a year, as she lived near the mini mansion most of our family called home.
That's what you got when your aunt was a famous actress that loved spending money and annoying her sister.
"Chloe really is cute," Hazel gushed. "Though Jade barely lets me hold her. But she saw me the other day and began clapping her hands. I could get used to that kind of reception."
We talked for over an hour. And if you asked me later what we'd gone on about, I would have struggled to explain. When we said a final goodbye, we'd tried to get off a few times but had gotten distracted, Hazel's last words were, "I'll call you this weekend."
I just agreed, exhilarated. Knowing I'd see her soon.
After Marie and my dad got married, when I was nine, we'd all been planning to move into his parent's house, which was right across the street from Vivian's, Marie's mother. That was how they fell in love Marie always said. Her dream man was sexy. (That's when all of us including Gray made disgusted faces). And he was local. Since Dad was her neighbor, she couldn't run from him. What was she supposed to do but fall in love?
Though they'd all been planning to squeeze into our home, Auntie Sadie had handed over an envelope after the wedding ceremony. It contained the deed to a house in Scottsdale, the one the family still lived in. The fight, the tears, and eventually the laughter resulting from that was still one of the funniest, clearest memories I had.
But Sadie won, as Marie said she always did, and once she and Dad had gotten back from their honeymoon, they spent the next few weeks moving. After a few years, Vivian came too, despite Marie often mumbling rude things under her breath about her mother. Once our brother was walking, even Marie had to admit she could use the help. And Vivian was more than eager to volunteer.
So we all lived there, through high school, our rooms remaining untouched through college visits. The house was big enough that when Sadie and Uncle Michael, her on and off again relationship companion (her label), and their son Cyrus were in town, they were able to stay there, too.
Jade had moved out permanently first. Because in her words, "I need to get away from the crazy for a while," but everyone knew that meant her husband, Marcel, or Marc, still hadn't gotten used to the noise.
The house, like many in southern Arizona, was brown, with actual turrets and front doors protected by gates. Twenty minutes from the highway, up in the mountains, I turned down street after street, finally arriving at Estrella Estates, where the house was located.
The day we'd moved in, I felt like the luckiest little kid in the world. The house alone was worth the feeling. Over eight thousand square feet in size, we'd all gotten lost that first week. We'd head left for the kitchen and end up in a bathroom. But like most things, we quickly got used to the luxury, though I never tried to take it for granted. I had chores, just like everyone else. Vivian, she insisted on doing all the cooking. And the cleaning up. And most of the time, she'd ironed our clothes for school. While looking like a retired supermodel.
As Jade once said, "She's our very own Stepford grandmother." But she'd said it with pride, like Vivian was the kind of person she wanted to grow into. After having the pleasure of devouring Vivian's food during the latter part of my childhood, I could see the appeal in turning out like that. I wasn't off to a good start. Though I could theoretically cook, I didn't enjoy it and only got through the steps if I blasted music as a distraction.
When we passed a neighbor walking their dogs, Diva barked her approval. And when I reached the gate, I put in the code. Once it opened, Diva, anticipating freedom, lifted her head to stare out the window. I put my hand around her waist to steady her. (I'd learned to do that when I'd braked in Vegas and she fell). As I pulled up into the long driveway and stopped the car, she strained to get away, scratching at the door.
Vivian came out of the house to see who'd arrived. The driveway faced the kitchen, and she was usually in there. Diva, maybe sensing a fellow complicated spirit, lost her mind.
Vivian was one of my favorite people in my extended family. I'd never met my mother's parents, and my dad's were nice, but they traveled a lot. I hadn't seen them in years. My Aunt Mae also gallivanted all over and lived in Chicago, so I mostly heard about her from my dad. And his other sister was a mystery. I loved them all, but I honestly didn't know them well.
But Vivian. She called and texted with the ease of a tween who'd just gotten her first phone. I was one of the lucky people she kept on her contact list.
"What is this?" Vivian called. "Kacie? Is that you?"
"It's me," I confirmed, hurrying to get one of her perfumed hugs.
Had she always been so frail? Though Vivian had worked to be slim, I swore I could feel the bones in her back. And had her face always been that thin? But her grip was strong and her steps steady as she'd sped toward me.
Eyes narrowed behind my sunglasses, I was about to launch into questions when we got distracted by Diva's loud, for a little dog, barking.
"Is that racket coming from your car?"
I grinned. "I got a puppy."
"Is she house broken? I just mopped."
"I don't know. I doubt it. But she's adorable."
Vivian nodded. "That is very important. I can't be walking an ugly dog."
And that was why I loved her. Only she could offer to help me while also insulting my taste. As she edged closer, the dog, seeing a new person to love and adore, went full out wild with elation. I opened the door and removed the wiggling puppy.
She practically jumped from my hands into Vivian's. "My goodness. What is this?" she cooed, allowing the licking and the sniffing and the invasion of her personal space.
Once Diva had gotten that out of her system, she stretched out for me again. I had distinct memories of my niece making the exact same request. Before I knew it, I'd have a baby bag with all of Diva's things inside it too.
When I glanced up again, Vivian was giving me a look. "Where did you come from? You're a mess."
"You don't like my traveling clothes?"
"Is that what they are?" She smirked, peering into the backseat of my car. "How much stuff did you bring? How long are the two of you staying?"
"Forever," I said, grinning, realizing that for the first time. "I'm moving back." I might not have known that exactly when I initially got into my car, but the happiness I felt driving up to the house couldn't be denied. And the sunshine. Had it always been so bright? Had the skies always been so blue? There was no way I was returning to the cloudy, humid city I'd just left.
"And where is that adorable boyfriend?" She scrutinized the car more closely, as if Jalen was hiding under the bags.
Off the reflection from the car window, she must have seen my face fall at that question. "Uh oh." She swiveled around, which was impressive for an old lady, and seized my arm. "Let's go inside. I just made cookies."
"Chocolate chip?" I asked, eager to move off the subject of missing boyfriends. Drowning my sorrows in sugar was much more appealing.
"Eh. Not my first choice. I'll still have some, though," I reassured her.
"Don't worry. I'll make your favorite tomorrow."
Which was ginger. And I knew Vivian would go to the grocery store and get all the ingredients, even if I protested. Most likely she'd drag me along, but that was half the fun.
I never thought I'd miss someone going to so much trouble for me, but right then, it was exactly what I needed.
It was good to be home.

Chapter Three

The house, like every time I visited, seemed to not have changed, even while appearing different. The couches in the family room were the same, but the throw pillows had multiplied, looking comforting and inviting as I put Diva down so she could sniff and explore. 
My dad's pictures still lined the walls, mostly landscapes and images of nature, taken whenever he and Marie had traveled around the country.
I focused on Vivian. "Where are Marie and Dad?"
"I think your dad said something about them having to get a tire fixed on her car. They were going to drop it off together. What time is it?" Vivian asked, lifting a cover off a plate of cookies, putting a few on a napkin after washing, then drying her hands, Vivian was very precise like that, and slid them my way.
I checked my phone as I took a large bite, dropping a few crumbs that the dog, now on my lap despite barely fitting, eagerly inhaled. "It's just after two."
"Then they should be here soon."
That's what happened when you didn't tell people you were coming, I thought. You didn't get the big, elaborate reunion you'd been imagining. Some hugs. Some squeals of laughter. A few kisses.
I gratefully drank down the glass of milk Vivian had put in front of me, then wiped my mouth. "What should we do until then? Where are Hazel and Jade? Are they coming today?"
"Of course. It's Friday."
Friday. "You're making dinner tonight? Does Marie still pretend to be annoyed by it?"
Vivian grimaced. "She always has to claim that she wishes we could do it on Saturday, or Sunday, but I think a nice dinner after a long week of working is the best."
"You usually do something on Sunday anyway," I teased.
"Of course. I have to feed my babies."
"Dad always says she secretly loves it. And sometimes he asks her if she wants takeout and she reminds him that you'll be cooking."
"You see? She just can't admit it to me."
"So, what's been going on with you?" I asked, seeing out of the corner of my eye that my phone was ringing. The screen lit up with Jalen's picture. My traitorous heart started pounding.
"Does he know you're here?"
I shook my head, my eyes meeting her disappointed ones.
She gestured to the now silent device. "Let him know. He's probably worried sick. I'm assuming the two of you had a fight? But it had to be more than that for you to drive all the way here."
"We did, and he's pretty angry at me. I'm angry at him."
"And if he doesn't hear from you, then it'll be a whole thing. Just because you're upset, doesn't mean you stop loving each other."
I made a face at the counter after her words settled over me. I knew she was right. We'd once had an argument and I'd felt a rage overwhelm me, where all I wanted to do was punch him. Repeatedly. And I had a mean right hook. I stormed off instead, without taking my phone. I'd gone to the grocery store, calming down as I walked the familiar aisles, buying food I doubted we'd prepare since we mostly ate out.
By the time I barreled back through the front door, he'd been pacing the room but stopped when he saw it was me. I'd braced myself, expecting words about how I didn't control him and that I needed to stop telling him what to do. But he ran to hug me, first thing. His anger at me was forgotten.
We should have talked more when we weren't angry, though. So neither of us would let the bitterness build and explode, as it had the other day.
"I don't know if I can talk to him," I admitted to Vivian. I was still a coward.
"Then at least text. Explain where you are. Say you need some time to yourself. And then let me spoil you for a few days until you're ready to face him."
I laughed. "I really love you, you know."
Vivian's face softened. She leaned over to touch my cheek. "I know."
It would have been a nice moment. One for me to remember why I'd driven two thousand miles. If a warm puddle hadn't suddenly filled my lap. I stared down at the sleeping dog that had been laying there peacefully, only to find she was wide awake.
I scrunched my face up in disgust.
"I think she just peed on me."
Vivian took a large step away. "Well. How disgusting," she said, all prim. "I guess I won't be holding her anytime soon."
"It's warm," I whined.
"So, she's not trained."
I took the paper towels Vivian held out. "She was fine on our trip. I should have taken her into the backyard when we got here. I'm still learning."
"She's going to be peeing in my yard?" Vivian shuddered. "You know what you need? One of those circular kennels." Her eyes lit up with a devilish smile, the one Marie said haunted her dreams. "We must go shopping."
"You sound like Sadie."
"Where do you think she gets it?" Vivian asked proudly.
She clearly hadn't realized I'd meant my comment as an insult.
Vivian assured me we had time to make it back before anyone got home.
"What about later? Don't you have to cook dinner?" I took in the spotless kitchen. Not a crumb to be found.
She pointed toward a big electric pot. "That's been going for hours. I can turn it off while we run to the store."
"So that's what smells so good."
Vivian beamed. "I'll be ready in ten minutes," she promised, taking off the frayed Eiffel Tower apron she'd had for as long as I could remember.
After strongly suggesting I change, Vivian hurried out impressively fast. I got the things from the car I'd need, Diva's carrying case, the bags I'd been lugging into and out of hotels, then dragged it all up to my room.
My big, inviting bed was waiting there for me, up against the wall where I liked it, with what I knew were clean sheets. Marie and Dad washed them every month, so whenever one of us came back, our rooms would be ready.
I really wanted to lay down and might have indulged myself. But then I recalled the stinky, pee-stained clothes. I'd have to wait before I could sleep. I was starting to learn what being responsible for something else meant. I hated to admit how much I enjoyed not having to think about only myself.
I got out a new outfit, hurried into the adjoining bathroom, and took the quickest shower I ever had, which was basically not shaving anything. I'd take another one. Or maybe a bath. Soak in some Epsom salts and remove the aches from being in a car for so long.
"Are you ready?" Vivian called.
When I peeked over the banister minutes later, she was waiting in the front hallway. She'd given up on coming to the second level years earlier and reigned from the first floor. Luckily, or maybe Sadie had foreseen it, there was almost an entire apartment down there that Vivian had all to herself.
I bounced as I descended the stairs, Diva secure in her case I still carried. She wasn't getting out of there until the memory of pee had faded a little more.
"You don't mind driving?" Vivian asked as we stepped out of the house. "You must be sick of such a confined space."
"It wasn't so bad. Since it was only me, I just drove seven or so hours a day. And I haven't really used my car in years."
I wanted to help her get settled. It just seemed like the polite thing to do, despite me knowing she could handle herself. Vivian still moved around well. She was just a little slower than she had been the last time I'd been home.
"Do you need me?" I asked, knowing I probably shouldn't.
And I was right.
She gave me a kindhearted glare. "You just attend to that dog and I'll be fine," she said, easing herself inside the car.
At least I'd be around more to make sure she took it easy, which would be tricky, as I could never let her know that's what I was doing.
I buckled Diva in, after giving her a couple of pats through the front of her carrier. And I accepted the licks she gave me as forgiveness for trapping her.
By the time I turned the car on, Vivian was waiting, her seatbelt fastened. She raised an eyebrow. "Old people are so difficult sometimes," I said.
Vivian didn't cringe from the word old. I'd found she often took pride in it. That she was old but still independent. "We've earned that right."
We discussed nothing of consequence, lulling each other into comfort. Vivian was good at that. Some might think she didn't care because she wasn't bombarding me with questions, but I knew the truth. I'd figured out Vivian's approach a long time ago. She waited. Bided her time. And just when you thought she wasn't interested, she attacked.
Like when we were slowly walking up the aisles of the closest pet store. Vivian liked to wander. She got distracted easily. The first time, when she took in the holiday outfits they had on display, it all came back to me. I gently extracted one from her hand, making it clear my dog had no reason to wear a costume.
"How's your mother? Have you heard from her lately?"
See? That's what I meant. Vivian was the only one that ever asked about my mom. She wasn't being intentionally cruel. Jade would say she was starting drama by mentioning Teresa. But sometimes, it did feel good to talk about her.
I had issues regarding my mother. Never mentioning her didn't make them go away.
And maybe Vivian, in her intelligent deviousness, thought it would be good to forget Jalen for a while by reminding me of someone in my life who, let's be honest, resented my being born. It was easy to forget heartbreak when I remembered her.
"I think she's fine. Probably off torturing an innocent soul before she swings back to me."
"Then she hasn't been calling you?"
I shrugged. "Every once in a while. Usually for money."
"Which you give her," Vivian stated.
She knew me well. "It's the best way to get rid of her."
"Hmm. And what have you been doing to keep yourself busy? You said you completed school?"
I'd finally finished enough credits to get a graduate degree in Business Administration, but I was still no closer to actually beginning a career. "Yeah, I did," I confirmed. "I have no idea what to do next. But I really loved working at that bookstore near my apartment. It reminded me of Marie's. And over the last few months I helped Melanie with the dogs at her center which was a lot of fun. I usually walked them."
"Is that why you got one?"
I thought about the hour long, chaotic trips around the city that I'd quickly learned to love. "Maybe," I said. At first, the idea seemed ridiculous, but could all those afternoons with other people's animals have slowly been preparing me for Diva?
"If you're used to dogs, how did you let one pee on you?"
"I've never dealt with a puppy before," I exclaimed, trying to defend myself. But it was pretty funny. "She's not technically a puppy, but she's little."
We found the kennels, and after I wrestled the box into my car, we headed home. By the time we pulled into our neighborhood, I was pretty sure the car we'd been behind since leaving the main road looked familiar. But when it turned down our street, I was convinced.
"I think that's Hazel's car," I said.
Vivian moved her head forward. I was sure she was squinting, but I couldn't tell for certain since she had on the biggest, darkest sunglasses known to man. "You're right. Which means she's got Jade and the baby in there with her."
I reached and got my phone, dialing Hazel's number, anticipating the fun I'd have messing with them. She picked up on the second ring.
"Hey," she yelled. "We were just talking about you."
"Oh, yeah?" I asked, jutting my chin out toward the steering wheel. I hated Bluetooth. It made me feel like I was shouting to myself. Just yelling into thin air, having a voice sound all around me, was just unnatural. And it usually gave me a headache. Give me headphones any day.
"We're heading home and we were just wishing you were with us. It's Friday," Jade's voice said, as if it being Friday made all the difference to why they were missing me.
And she was right. I understood immediately.
Even through college, through Jade getting married and having a baby, they all continued getting together when they were in town. It was only the last few years that we'd all scattered, and I knew they, having stayed home, felt the loss the most.
"You guys will get around the food and forget all about me," I said.
"Never. And you know Mom will go on and on about you. She still hasn't forgiven you or Gray."
I noticed Vivian grinning at that, feeling a perverse pleasure in Marie's pain. Once upon a time, Marie had been the one to leave home. We all knew Vivian felt vindication at her daughter getting a taste of how painful that had been.
"Well, maybe she'll forgive me," I said.
"How come? Are you visiting soon?" Hazel asked.
"Actually, yes."
They squealed with delight. If me just admitting to visiting was making them that happy, they were going to faint when they saw my car. "When?" Jade asked. "You should come for Thanksgiving next year. Everyone will be home then. And I know you guys always spend it with Jalen's family, and I know he doesn't really like us, but you have to come anyway."
My stomach tensed when she mentioned Jalen. It wasn't that he didn't like my family, it was more that he was a quiet person, and our family was anything but.
"He doesn't like us?" Hazel asked. "I can't imagine why."
I knew she was teasing. She'd had a few boyfriends over the years that couldn't hang either.
"Is someone following us?" Jade interrupted. "That car has been behind us for a while."
I grinned, proud that she'd caught on. I'd been worried about their observational skills.
"Is it?" Hazel asked.
"If there is," I said, "you should call the police."
Vivian tsked at me. "Okay. Now you're just being cruel."
"Who is that?" Hazel asked.
"Grandma?" Jade called. "Was that her? Only she can say something like that while sounding amused."
Vivian laughed.
"That was her," Jade said, her voice dawning with understanding. "Kacie?"
"Tell me you're in that car and you called just to be a brat and mess with us."
"You know me well," I said as the house came into view.
They squealed and shouted questions as they entered the driveway. It was all I could do to steer the car without crashing into them, I was cracking up that much.
As soon as the cars were safely parked, the three of us opened our doors and had a reunion at Hazel's bumper, where we lost all dignity as we jumped up and down screaming.
"What are you doing here? Is that barking?" Jade asked.
I regained a little bit of myself. "Oh yeah. I got a dog."
They both grinned maniacally. "You did?" Hazel squealed, going to the car to check for herself. She took the dog out reverently, reaching to open the crate. Vivian had the presence of mind to warn her about potential urination, since I was too busy making faces at Jade's daughter.
We all spent thirty minutes talking over each other. And when my dad and Marie got home an hour later, we went through the celebration steps again. I was hugged more in my life than I'd ever been. Even when I'd left. Because I'd gone for college and just never moved back.
As the party advanced into the kitchen, I overheard Marie telling Dad, "Our baby is home." I got a little flush of pleasure at that.
This was what I'd been missing from my life.
And right then, I knew I'd made the best decision when I'd pointed my car in the direction of home.
Taking Vivian's advice, I texted both Jalen and Melanie from under the cover of my blankets, my eyes burning with sleep deprivation.
I let them know where I was. That I was okay. I half-expected them to no longer care, but I should have had more faith.
Jalen wrote back he was glad I was safe. I stared at that one for a while, smiling despite myself.
Mel just sent me seven angry faced emojis.
And those made me laugh.
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That's Our Brother
Copyright © November 2021 Roxanne Rhaman