Authors: Lauren Gilley
Cover image by Gary Jones.
Gary and Elaine’s Photography
For my family,
because you always believed.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Resemblances to real persons or places is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Lauren Gilley
All rights reserved. The characters in this novel are the property of Lauren Gilley and may not be duplicated.
“Don’t go saying things you can’t take back later - ”
It was raining and fat water drops streaked down the window panes above the kitchen sink. The alley of side yard between the Walkers’ house and the privacy fence that separated it from the Powells’ house was nearly flooded; a veritable creek rushing between the spiky blades of grass, on its way to join the pond forming in the backyard no doubt.
Joanna curled her right hand into a fist, crumpling the invitation inside it, her left hand locked in a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the counter. “I’m not going,” she said in a voice that, though she’d intended it to be calm and purposeful, came out sounding petulant and defiant.
“Oh, lemme see,” her mother said, stepping up beside her. “Where – well, Jesus, Jo, you wrecked the thing!”
Jo flattened her palm when she felt her mom’s blunt nails prying apart her fingers. It was futile to try and hide things from Beth Walker, as she’d always known. But at least she’d had the satisfaction of ruining the cutesy script and expensive parchment paper.
“Good lord,” Beth grumbled as she stretched the invitation out and attempted to smooth it across the laminate countertop. “What’d this piece of paper ever do to you?”
“Dunno, Mom,” Jordan said from the table, “paper can be pretty fierce.”
Jo glanced at her brother and caught his wink: so much for their closeness in age creating animosity. Jordan was the sibling she could always count on backing her up. She twitched him a smile in return.
Beth made a
-ing sound against the inside of her cheek. “You knew it was coming,” she scolded. “You can’t hate weddings that much.”
“It’s not the wedding invitation.” Jo waited and watched her mom’s eyes move across the paper, and then saw recognition dawn with a pucker of her lips.
“For a week?” Beth glanced up, incredulous.
“What’s it say?” Jordan asked.
She cleared her throat and began reading: “’Mr. Michael James Walker and Ms. Delta Charity Brooks would like to warmly welcome the members of the wedding party and immediate family to share in the most romantic time of their lives’ –”
Jo rolled her eyes and suppressed the urge to gag, much to Jordan’s amusement.
“ – ‘by spending the week with them at Billingsly Castle.’” Beth blinked. “Are you kidding me?”
Jo turned to see her father, Randy, coming in from the garage, toweling what she assumed to be grease from the lawn mower off his hands onto a scrap of red rag. Seeing him in his stained white t-shirt, tattered old jeans, and ancient Wolverine boots after hearing the word “castle” made the urge to smile almost irresistible.
“Our presence,” Beth said in a false, lofty tone, “has been requested at ‘Billingsly Castle’ from June fifteenth to June twenty-third.”
Randy’s big, square face was creased with dozens of lines as he frowned. “The twenty-third…that’s the wedding. Michael’s wedding.”
“Who do you think sent this?” Beth waved the invitation in the air and he stepped forward and took it from her, leaving behind, to Jo’s delight, a big smudge of grease on one corner.
His frown threatened to collapse his brows permanently over his eyes as he read. “This wasn’t Mike. This was that
.” He said her name like a curse word. “Mike didn’t used to be so goddamn fancy.”
“So gosh darn fancy,” he snapped, handing the invitation back to his wife. “That’s some bullshit right there. I’m not going to any castle. Who’s gonna pay for that shit? Not me, that’s who!”
“We already knew the wedding was in Ireland.” Beth tried to be reasonable. “And we knew it was being held at the castle - ”
“But I wasn’t gonna
in the castle! Ireland’s got Holiday Inns, don’t it?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Jordan said with a poorly masked smile. “I’m sure they do.”
“Why do they want us to go early?” Randy asked.
“They’ve invited the family and the wedding party,” Beth said.
“Which is why.” Jo raised her voice, pulling everyone’s eyes. “We’re
“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Randy shrugged and headed back toward the garage. “If Mikey shows up, you tell him to come find me. He’s got some serious explaining to do.” He nodded meaningfully before he stepped into the garage and shut the door behind him.
“Mikey’s not showing up,” Beth said with a loud exhale, shaking her head as she set the invitation aside on the counter and folded her arms. “Mikey
shows up anymore.”
The rain was hastening nightfall’s arrival, and by contrast, the kitchen with its overhead fluorescent tubes seemed overly bright. It highlighted the crow’s feet at the corners of Beth’s eyes, the slight droop to her cheeks. Her soft blonde hair was in need of a fresh highlight job, a touch of gray showing at the crown. When Jo looked at her, she saw her sweet, full-of-hugs mother, and not someone who needed to spend more money than she had on a jaunt to Ireland.
This selfless concern for her family’s monetary state was the excuse she gave herself for reacting so violently to the invitation. She pretended seeing the words
hadn’t rattled her so badly she’d wanted to scream and rip the paper to shreds.
Beth heaved another sigh and glanced sideways at her daughter. She shrugged. “Maybe it won’t be so bad. We can borrow money if we have to.” She forced a smile. “It might be fun for us to all get away together. We haven’t taken a family trip since you kids were little.”
“Fun?” Jo asked, a strange mixture of dread and unwanted excitement setting her nerves on edge. “Fun to take a trip with the
part of the wedding party.”
“And all of Delta and Mike’s friends?”
“Well, yeah, but…” Her mother’s eyes widened, her mouth closing into a little “O” as she did a quick mental calculating of Mike’s friends. “Oh,” she said, finally understanding Jo’s consternation, and now that it was out in the open, Jo wanted to crawl under a rock so she could die of embarrassment alone. “Tam.”
“Ouch,” Jordan said with a little wince. “That sucks.”
Yes it did. The only thing worse than this magical farce of a wedding and all its magical, farcical trappings was being forced to spend time with the man she’d prefer to never see again.
Joanna Lynn Walker was the youngest of five and she and her older brother Jordan were exactly nine months apart. They were both ten, but because his birthday was in January and hers in October, she was in fourth grade and he was in fifth. They rode the bus home together every day and it wasn’t uncommon for them to sit in the same seat, even. Which always struck up the twin talk.
They looked like they could be twins. Jordan was taller, because he was a boy and because he was older, but they both had blonde hair so full of dark streaks they may as well have been brunette. Unlike their super-blonde siblings, their green eyes were touched with blue and looked almost turquoise in a certain light. They were both skinny. Both had the same nose. And everyone at school insisted they were twins, though they weren’t, which bothered Jo; she hated people saying things that weren’t true.
Their older brother Michael, who thought he was so cool because he was in seventh grade, said they were the mailman’s babies, whatever that meant, and when Jo called him a liar, he said it had to be true because they didn’t look like Mom or Dad.
But Michael was always saying things like that now. Gone was the brother who’d helped her catch frogs and held her up to the monkeybars. Now he was growing his hair long and bothering Dad about finishing the basement so he could have his “own space.” He needed “privacy” he said, and Jo wondered if it had anything to do with the pack of cigarettes she’d found in his jacket pocket two weeks ago.
On a blustery December afternoon, Jo watched through the window as the bus squeaked and groaned to a halt in front of their two-story brick box of a house. It was one of countless other houses just like it along the street, the trees in its yard bare-limbed and quaking in the sharp breeze. Jo gathered her backpack and slid out of the seat behind Jordan, following him up the aisle, waving to some of her friends. The driver pulled the door lever and it snapped open, a sharp draft of frigid air rushing into the bus.
“Be quick about it. It’s cold,” he admonished, and they hopped down to the street and started up the drive.
cold. Jo flipped up the collar of her corduroy jacket and snuggled down into it, her hands crammed in her armpits since she’d forgotten her gloves again. The air smelled like exhaust as the bus rumbled away, but she could smell snow too as the wind slapped at her cheeks and tore her hair out from beneath the knit stocking cap she’d pulled down over her ears.
Ahead of her, Jordan had the hood of his windbreaker pulled up and cinched over his head, and his hands were in his pockets, but she could see a tremor race through his skinny body. “Come on,” he encouraged, and they broke into a jog up the front sidewalk.
Walt’s green Toyota was in the drive, she noticed, as they dashed for the door. He was a junior in high school and was on a work program which meant his classes ended early three days a week so he could go to his job. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – like today – he got home at one o’clock, took a shower, choked down a snack, and then went to McDonald’s where he worked until closing. It was a “shit job” in his own words, but he was saving up for college. For a better car. Walt was a dreamer and in her ten-year-old mind, Jo was completely certain her brother Walter would achieve every dream he dreamed, because that was just the kind of person he was.
The front door was unlocked and the narrow foyer with its ugly rug for muddy boots was a welcome respite from the outdoors. Jordan and Jo dropped their bags on the bench against the wall and hung up their coats – in Jo’s case, her hat too – and stepped out of their shoes; Jordan had been wearing Adidas whose soles were sloughing off and Jo had brown leather moccasins with beaded tassels.
The tinny sound of the TV kitchen and the smell of fresh coffee drew them down the hall to the heart of the house. The cabinets and counters were arranged in a horseshoe shape, a bar with stools on the far end, beyond which sat the oval table where they took their meals. The floor was linoleum and Mom hated it, but Jo loved its pattern that looked like gray stones laid out under their feet. There were lots of windows and weak winter sun poured in around them. Beth had an affinity for birds, so there were ceramic cardinals and robins and jays tucked away in the corners of countertops and along the tops of the upper cabinets, nestled among potted plants. A troupe of chickadees perched on a floating wooden shelf above Grandma Walker’s hand-me-down ceramic plate display.
Walt was dressed for work already in his McDonald’s shirt and black pants, sitting at the bar, coffee and a sandwich in front of him, watching the little white TV that sat beside the microwave.