Everyone even vaguely related to me is in this house. Dressed in black and huddled together in awkward conversation around cheese plates and casserole dishes. My baby pictures on the wall. In fits and starts, someone clinks a fork against a bottle of Guinness or a glass of Jameson to raise a toast and tell an inappropriate story about how Mom once rode a Jet Ski topless through the Independence Day boat parade. While my dad looks uncomfortable and stares out the window, I sit with my brothers and pretend we’re familiar with these old stories about our mother, the fun-loving, life-by-the-balls-grabbing Laurie Christine West … when in reality we never knew her at all.
“So we were hot-boxing it to Florida in the back of an old ice-cream truck,” starts Cary, one of my mother’s cousins. “And somewhere south of Savannah, we hear this noise, like a rustling around, coming from the back…”
I cling to a bottle of water, fearing what I’ll do without something in my hands. I picked a hell of a time to get sober. Everyone I’ve run into is trying to shove a drink in my hand because they don’t know what else to say to the poor motherless girl.
I’ve considered it. Sliding up to my old bedroom with a bottle of anything and knocking it back until this day ends. Except I’m still regretting the last time I slipped.
But it would certainly make this entire ordeal slightly more tolerable.
Great-aunt Milly is doing circles around the house like a goldfish in a bowl. Every pass, she stops at the sofa to pat my arm and weakly squeeze my wrist and tell me I look just like my mother.
“Someone’s gotta stop her,” my younger brother Billy whispers beside me. “She’s going to collapse. Those skinny little ankles.”
She’s sweet, but she’s starting to creep me out. If she calls me by my mom’s name, I might lose my shit.
“I tell Louis to turn down the radio,” Cousin Cary continues, getting excited about his story. “Because I’m trying to figure out exactly where the noise is coming from. Thought we might be dragging something.”
Mom had been sick for months before she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. According to Dad, she’d dealt with a constant pain in her back and abdomen that she’d ignored as the aches of getting older—and then a month later she was dead. But to me, this all started only a week ago. A call in the middle of the afternoon from my brother Jay urging me to come home, followed by another from my dad saying Mom wasn’t going to be around much longer.
They’d all kept me in the dark. Because she hadn’t wanted me to know.
How messed up is that?
“I’m talking about, for miles, this knocking around in there. Now, we’re all pretty baked, okay? You gotta understand. Ran into this old-timer hippie freak back in Myrtle Beach who hooked us up with some kush—”
Someone coughs, grumbles under their breath.
“Let’s not bore them with the details,” Cousin Eddie says. Knowing glances and conspiratorial smirks travel among the cousins.
“Anyway.” Cary starts up again, hushing them. “So we hear this, whatever it is. Tony’s driving, and your mom,” he says, gesturing his glass at us kids, “is standing in front of the freezer with a bong over her head like she’s about to beat a raccoon to death or something.”
My mind is far, far away from this ridiculous anecdote, jumbled and twisted with thoughts of my mother. She spent weeks lying in bed, preparing to die. Her last wish was for her only daughter to find out she was sick at the last possible moment. Even my brothers were forbidden from being at her bedside in the slow, agonizing slip into her final days. Mom preferring, as always, to suffer in silence while keeping her children at a distance. On the surface it might seem she did it for the benefit of her kids, but I suspect it was for her own sake—she wanted to avoid all those emotional, intimate moments that her impending death would no doubt trigger, the same way she avoided those moments in life.
In the end, she was relieved to have an excuse not to act like our mother.
“None of us want to open the freezer, and someone’s shouting at Tony to pull over, but he’s freaking out because he sees a cop a few cars behind us and, oh yeah, it occurs to us we’re carrying contraband across state lines, so…”
And I can forgive her. Until her last breath, she was herself. Never pretending to be anything else. Since we were kids, she’d made it clear she wasn’t particularly interested in us, so we never expected much. My dad and brothers, though—they should have told me about her illness. How do you keep something like that from your child, your sister? Even if I was living a hundred miles away. They should have told me, damn it. There might have been things I wanted to say to her. If I’d had the time to think about it more.
“Finally, Laurie tells me, you’re gonna flip open the lid and we’re gonna throw open the side door and Tony is gonna slow down enough to kick whatever it is out onto the shoulder of the road.”
Chuckles break out from the crowd.
“So we count to three, I close my eyes, and I throw open the lid, expecting fur and claws to leap for my face. Instead, we see some dude in there asleep. He wandered in who knows when. Somewhere back in Myrtle Beach, maybe. Just curled up and took a nap.”
This isn’t how I pictured coming back to Avalon Bay. The house I grew up in crowded with mourners. Flower arrangements and sympathy cards on every table. We left the funeral hours ago, but I guess these things follow you. For days. Weeks. Never knowing when it’s acceptable to say, okay, enough, go back to your lives and let me go back to mine. How do you even throw out a three-foot flower heart?
As Cary’s story winds down, my dad taps me on the shoulder and nods toward the hallway, pulling me aside. He’s wearing a suit for maybe the third time in his life, and I can’t get used to it. It’s just another thing that’s out of sorts. Coming home to a place I don’t quite recognize, as if waking up in an alternate reality where everything is familiar but not. Just a little off-center. I guess I’ve changed too.
“Wanted to grab you for a minute,” he says as we duck away from the somber festivities. He can’t keep his hands off his tie or from tugging at the collar of his shirt. Loosening it, then seemingly talking himself into straightening and tightening it again, like he feels guilty about it. “Look, I know there isn’t a great time to bring this up, so I just got to ask.”
“What’s going on?”
“Well, I wanted to see if you might be planning to stick around for a while.”
“I don’t know, Dad. I hadn’t given it much thought.” I didn’t expect to get cornered so soon. Figured I’d have time, maybe a couple days, to see how things went and decide then. I left Avalon Bay a year ago for a reason and would have preferred to stay gone if not for the circumstances. I have a life back in Charleston. A job, an apartment. Amazon deliveries piling up at my door.
“See, I was hoping you could help with the business. Your mom managed all the office stuff, and things have kind of gone to hell on that since…” He stops himself. None of us know how to talk about it—her. It feels wrong no matter from which angle we try to approach it. So we trail off into silence and nod at each other to say, yeah, I don’t know either, but I understand. “I thought, if you weren’t in too much of a rush, you wouldn’t mind jumping in there and making sense of it all.”
I expected he might be depressed for a while and need some time to himself to cope, to get his head around it all. Maybe run off and go fishing or something. But this is … a lot to ask.
“What about Kellan, or Shane? Either one of them have got to know more about running that place than I do. Doesn’t seem like they’d want me striding in there jumping the line.”
My two oldest brothers have been working for Dad for years. In addition to a small hardware store, he also owns a stone business that caters to landscapers and people embarking on home renovations. Since I was a kid, my mom managed the inside stuff—orders, invoices, payroll—so Dad could worry about the dirty work outside.
“Kellan’s the best foreman I’ve got, and with all these hurricane rebuilds we’re doing down on the south coast, I can’t afford to take him off the jobsites. And Shane spent the last year driving around on an expired license because the boy never opens his damn mail. I’d be bankrupt in a month if I let him anywhere near the books.”
He’s not wrong. I mean, I love my brothers, but the one time our parents had Shane babysit us, he let Jay and Billy climb onto the roof with a box of cherry bombs. The fire department showed up after the three boys started launching bombs with a slingshot at the neighbor’s teenage sons in their pool. Growing up with two younger brothers and three older ones was entertaining, to say the least.
Still, I’m not getting roped into being a permanent replacement for Mom.
I bite my lip. “How long are you thinking?”
“A month, maybe two?”
I think it over for a moment, then sigh. “On one condition,” I tell him. “You have to start looking to hire a new office manager in the next few weeks. I’ll stick around until you find the right fit, but this isn’t going to become a long-term arrangement. Deal?”
Dad wraps an arm around my shoulder and kisses the side of my head. “Thanks, kiddo. You’re really helping me out of a jam.”
I can’t ever say no to him, even when I know I’m getting hosed. Ronan West might come off as a hard-ass, but he’s always been a good father. Gave us enough freedom to get in trouble but was always there to bail us out. Even when he was pissed at us, we knew he cared.
“Grab your brothers, will ya? We gotta talk about a couple things.”
He sends me off with foreboding and a pat on the back. Past experience has taught me that family meetings are never a positive affair. Family meetings mean more upheaval. Which is terrifying, because wasn’t getting me to uproot my life to temporarily move back home already the big ask? I’m running through things in my head like breaking my lease or getting a subletter, quitting my job or pleading for a sabbatical, and my dad’s still got more on the docket?
“Hey, shithead.” Jay, who’s sitting on the arm of the sofa in the living room, kicks my shin as I walk up. “Grab me another beer.”
“Get it yourself, butt sniffer.”
He’s already ditched his jacket and tie, his white dress shirt unbuttoned at the top and sleeves rolled up. The others aren’t much better, all of them in various states of giving up on the whole suit thing since getting back from the cemetery.
“Did you see Miss Grace? From middle school?” Billy, who’s still not old enough to drink, tries to offer me a flask, but I wave it off. Jay snatches it instead. “She showed up a minute ago with Corey Doucette carrying her stupid little purse dog.”
“Moustache Doucette?” I grin at the memory. In freshman year, Corey grew this creepy serial killer strip of hair on his lip and just refused to shave the nasty thing until it escalated to the threat of suspension if he didn’t get rid of it. He was scaring the teachers. “Miss Grace has got to be, what, seventy?”
“I think she was seventy when I had her class in eighth grade,” Shane says, shivering to himself.
“So they’re, like, screwing?” Craig’s face contorts in horror. His was the last class she taught before retiring. My youngest brother is now a high school graduate. “That’s so messed up.”
“Come on,” I tell them. “Dad wants to talk to us in the den.”
Once assembled, Dad starts in again on his tie and shirt collar until Jay hands him the flask and he takes a relieved swig. “So I’m just gonna come out with it: I’m putting the house up for sale.”
“What the hell?” Kellan, the eldest, speaks for all of us when his outburst stunts Dad’s announcement. “Where did this come from?”
“It’s just me and Craig here now,” Dad says, “and with him going off to college in a couple months, it doesn’t make much sense to hang on to this big, empty place. Time to downsize.”
“Dad, come on,” Billy interjects. “Where’s Shane gonna sleep when he forgets where he lives again?”
“One time,” Shane growls, punching him in the arm.
“Yeah, fuck you, one time.” Billy gives him a shove. “What about when you slept on the beach because you couldn’t find your car parked not even fifty yards away?”
“Will y’all knock it off? You’re acting like a bunch of damn idiots. There are people still out there mourning your mother.”
That shuts everyone up real quick. For just a minute or two, we’d forgotten. That’s what keeps happening. We forget, and then the truck slams into us again and we’re snapped back to the present, to this strange reality that doesn’t feel right.
“Like I said, it’s too much house for one person. My mind’s made up.” Dad’s tone is firm. “But before I can put it on the market, we’ve got to fix it up a little. Put a spit shine on it.”
Seems like everything’s changing too fast, and I can’t keep up. I barely had time to get my head around Mom being sick before we were putting her in the ground, and now I’ve got to pick up and move my whole life back home, only to find out home won’t exist much longer either. I’ve got whiplash, but I’m standing still, watching everything swirl around me.
“There’s no sense clearing out until Craig gets settled at school in the fall,” Dad says, “so it’ll be a little while yet. But there it is. Thought y’all should know sooner rather than later.”
With that, he ducks out of the den. Damage done. He leaves us there with the fallout of his announcement, all of us shell-shocked and staggering.
“Shit,” Shane says like he just remembered he left his keys on the beach at high tide. “You know how much porn and old weed is hidden in this house?”
“Right.” Affecting a serious face, Billy smacks his hands together. “So after Dad falls asleep, we start ripping out floorboards.”
As the boys argue about who gets dibs on any lost contraband they might dig up, I’m still trying to catch my breath. I guess I’ve never been good with change. I’m still fumbling to navigate my own transformation since leaving town.
Swallowing a sigh, I abandon my brothers and step into the hall—where my gaze snags on probably the only thing about this place that hasn’t changed one bit.
My ex-boyfriend Evan Hartley.
Copyright © 2022 by Elle Kennedy