Maybe it was the blow to the head. I don’t know. Maybe that whole day would have been weird no matter what. Weird and surreal and unbelievable.
It wasn’t intentional. The blow to the head, I mean. Landon was properly sugared up and running around like a kid should on Christmas, playing with all his toys simultaneously and wearing a number of the red ribbons from his presents in his hair and a few of the bows stuck to his pajamas. At one point he launched himself from the La-Z-Boy recliner into my lap on the couch, except I wasn’t quite ready for it. We knocked heads and there was a moment when I thought he was going to cry. Instead we burst out laughing. I’m not actually sure which of us started laughing first or if it was spontaneous.
“You used to do that all the time as a kid,” Janine said sourly.
I rubbed the top of his head and my cheekbone simultaneously. “Leap off the furniture?”
“No. Laugh when you fell down or something.” This was apparently an annoying trait to her, or maybe she was annoyed about something else. She huffed. “Come on, Lanny. Time to get some real clothes on.”
Ziggy turned from fiddling with the stereo, where he was putting in a mix tape of some kind, to Claire. “Is that true?”
“That Daron used to laugh when he got hurt? I don’t remember that,” she said. She was perched on a dining room chair, methodically nibbling her way through a plate of Christmas cookies. “I remember him being a very quiet child. For a boy especially.”
A prickle spread across the back of my neck, as if a ghost of Christmas past was breezing by, freezing my thoughts in place. Did she not remember—or not want to—that I had to actively silence myself to keep her from raging at me? If it weren’t for headphones I would have gone insane.
I mean, on the one hand my childhood hadn’t been that long ago. I was twenty-three. It wasn’t like she was ancient and we were talking about the previous century or something.
But Claire always had selective memory and selective vision. She saw what she wanted to see and believed what was convenient to believe. That wasn’t news. It still made my skin crawl.
My pager distracted me by buzzing in my pocket. I was making sure to carry it that day so if Carynne or any of the sane people I knew wanted to say Merry Christmas I’d know to call them back. A New York number I didn’t recognize popped up. Huh. What were the chances that was Digger? High enough that I didn’t rush to the phone.
Just thinking of him made me skittish enough that when the doorbell rang, I jumped before remembering we were waiting for Remo to arrive to do the rest of the gift exchanging. I went to answer it to sidestep any other uncomfortable reminiscing.
It was not Remo at the door. It was a skinny but sculpted blonde, her stylishly long raincoat unbuttoned over a white turtleneck. I could smell alcohol, though. Her forcefully cheerful facial expression fell into confusion as she looked at me and said, “What in the holy hell are you doing here?”
“Hi, Lilibeth.” I shrugged. “Merry Christmas. I’m here to console our terminally ill matriarch. How about you?”
She grabbed the screen door handle like she was going to rip it off the hinges and beat me over the head with it. “Take that back, you little shit! We don’t need your sarcastic bullshit!”
I had grabbed the handle on the inside to prevent her from doing so. I could see her makeup was somewhat imperfectly applied, her lipstick askew. “Nice to see you, too. I thought you were spending the holidays with your new–?”
“Shut up! Shut up! You think I want my face rubbed in it? Let me in!”
Before I could finish taking a breath to reply to that, she started pounding on the door frame. “Let me in! Let me in!” Then she promptly collapsed in a tearful heap on the doormat.
Janine appeared beside me and rolled her eyes. “For pete’s sake, Lili. No one is handing out any Academy Awards here, you know.”
I let Janine take over dealing with her at that point and retreated to a safe distance. Before long she had been coaxed indoors and enticed to sit down in the kitchen with some hot cocoa, though she kept shooting me poisonous looks. While the womenfolk dealt with her, Ziggy and I took Landon up to his room to introduce his new stuffed animals to the old crew. (He needed help carrying them.)
“Obviously someone is not having the Christmas she expected,” Ziggy said to me once we had delivered all the animals into the upper bunk.
“Obviously. We’ll have to get the details from Court later.”
Landon seemed well occupied so after a while we tiptoed back down again to see if it was safe yet. They had moved to the living room and Lilibeth’s coat had been replaced with an afghan, clutched around her, and it looked like everyone was drinking hot mulled wine.
She broke off in the middle of telling whatever story she was telling and zeroed in on Ziggy this time. “Who the hell are you?”
“Lili, language,” Claire said. “And he’s–”
“Your brother’s other half,” Ziggy said, tucking his arm through the crook of mine. “I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.”
She looked at him like he was a pet poodle who had stood up and spoken. “And I thought things couldn’t be worse.”
“Excuse me?” Ziggy replied. I could hear him sharpening his knives in his mind.
“Never mind. I can see we’re all living under a Chinese proverbial curse, that’s all.” She tossed her head like a photographer was capturing her profile.
Ziggy let it go. “Would anyone like seconds on wine? I’m going to get myself some,” he said amiably and then pulled me into the kitchen with him.
In the kitchen he opened another bottle and added it to the pot on the stove and stirred it while we listened to the conversation resume in the next room. I gathered that Lilibeth’s perfect new family hadn’t turned out so perfect after all, and she had spent her last dollar getting herself to Janine’s, but I missed exactly how it had all fallen apart. I don’t actually remember most of what she said.
I do remember Claire’s part of the conversation though. “Lili, goodness gracious, no one likes a drama queen.” “Lili, you pour it on too thick, no wonder he couldn’t stand you.” “You’re being ridiculous. Sometimes you have to accept reality.”
I felt dizzy listening to her. The thing was, this wasn’t like my mother had come to realize the error of her own drama-queen ways. Far from it. It was more like she had absorbed all the things we had wanted to say to her and turned those criticisms around to cut down Lilibeth with. It was disorienting. Like reality kept shifting under my feet. I felt vaguely ill. Maybe it was the fumes from the hot wine on the stove.
My pager buzzed again. This time from a number I recognized as Sarah’s.
The doorbell rang again. I figured surely this time it had to be Remo. I made the mistake of going to answer it again.
It was Mel. She had Ford in one arm and he was crying for some baby reason, and she didn’t seem too happy either. I pulled open the door. “Merry Christmas.” And welcome to the Drama Queen Variety Show and Revue. I looked behind her expecting to see Remo. What I saw was a taxicab pulling away.
“Merry Christmas,” she said automatically, then made shushing sounds to Ford, bouncing him and patting him on the back as she stepped in.
The phone in the kitchen began to ring and my pager went off again.
“Um… we were expecting your other half…?” I started to say. But I caught sight of Ziggy in the kitchen doorway, the phone pressed to his ear, and the look in his eyes was so dark it was like something from a horror movie. I had no idea what was wrong, only that it was terrible, whatever it was. He was beckoning me with one hand.
All the women in the room erupted into various hullabaloo. Greetings, accusations, insults, exclamations… I have no idea. It was just noise. I was moving in slow motion toward Ziggy trying to read his mind and find out what was wrong before anything else could happen.
We’d just spent weeks thinking about mortality, preparing ourselves in whatever way we could for the eventuality that Claire was going to die, whether sooner or later. He and I had talked late at night about it, I’d mused about it, I’d even started writing that one song about it. You know death is coming to visit and you think you’ll be prepared.
You’re never prepared. He handed me the phone, and Sarah was on the other end, and she was telling me something I wasn’t prepared at all to hear. If she’d told me Digger had been found in a ditch, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Hell, if we’d found out Christian went on a bender and wrapped his van around a tree, it would have hurt like hell, but I would’ve been able to wrap my head around it, to understand it, to accept it.
I couldn’t accept what she was saying at all.
Jordan Travers had been found dead of a heroin overdose.