She was having one of those emotionally vulnerable moments their therapist was often trying to get her to understand. All the signs were there: short temper, racing thoughts, catastrophic thinking—check, check, and check. All confirmed and completely undeniable in light of the huge fight she and Eric had last night.
The memory of it, with the morning hangover beginning to bloom, made her take a breath and hold it tight. Shit, what exactly had she been raving about? Because all of it was absolutely going to get rehashed at therapy next week. Eric certainly would not forget her every word; he never did. Eileen placed both her elbows on the desk and her head in her hands.
“A whole bottle of cab,” she whispered to herself, shaking her head. “Come on, Eileen.” The normally endearing expression broke her. The tears gathered and pooled behind her closed eyes.
Eric hadn’t sung her that song in years.
No, not now. She sat up and checked the time on the computer screen. Shit and shit…what had she been doing? Twenty minutes before they were all supposed to be out the door, and not a single one of her kids was even out of bed. Lunches, the laundry she didn’t move from the washer to the dryer last night, homework? Had she checked homework last night?
Time hated her—and it was so clearly personal.
Eighteen minutes. An impossibility. A series of miracles would not save them this morning. Everyone would be late, again. Well, everyone except Eric, of course. Eric was already out of the house, showered, dressed, pressed, and cologned. His lunch—the only one he ever packed—would be placed calmly and professionally onto the back seat of his immaculate and always client-ready car.
This, she remembered suddenly, is what had started the fight last night.
“I’m tired. I’m tired of doing everything,” she had finally managed to say, standing at the sink and slamming a cast-iron frying pan into the stainless steel tub hard enough to dent it.
“Just tell me!” Eric said, throwing both his hands over his head. “What the hell do you want me to do?”
“Why do I have to tell you? Look around, Eric. The To Do is all around you. For fuck’s sake, pick anything! Because I can’t manage the kids, the house, the bills, the yard, the every-fucking-thing anymore. My car! My car has not had the oil changed in a year!”
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“What?” Startled, he shook his head as if this was the most disturbing thing, the most pressing concern. “Eileen! A year?” His tone was accusing. “You’re lucky it’s still running. You can’t let that go like that.”
She stared at him. A swift and unexpected calm moved over her so fast it made the hair at the back of her neck stand up. She couldn’t make him understand, but she absolutely knew what the next words out of her mouth needed to be.
“Will you please take my car and get the oil changed.” It wasn’t a question. It was a concession. She was telling him what to do. Never mind it solved nothing. Never mind her only thought was the impossibility of him ever understanding. Never mind the hopeless feeling creeping up her spine, squeezing her ribs, holding her breath and her words tight in her chest.
Eric looked relieved. “Yes. Yes, tomorrow I’ll take it to my guy down by the office.” For the briefest of moments, he had looked like he might have wanted to come to her at the sink, maybe kiss her forehead. So happy we resolved all that. See, just tell me.
She didn’t want his kiss. She wanted him to know how hard it was to make all the pieces keep moving. She wanted him to help, not because she told him or gave him a list, but because he saw their life, their children…her. She wanted him to notice what needed attention because he cared—not because it was assigned.
That was the fight last night, and that was how it ended. Well, and with a bottle of cab as she finished the dishes and Eric retreated to his office for the work he’d brought home.
Fifteen minutes before everyone needed to be in the car.
She sat back in the kitchen chair she used when working on her laptop in the kitchen, felt the tears slide down her cheeks, and considered the implications of calling it a “mental health” day for everyone—not even waking the kids up. Let them sleep, the dogs sleep, the lunches go unmade, the laundry sit in the wash. Crawl back into bed herself even.
An email alert slid onto the screen.
“News: Clare Collins”
Eileen stared at the rectangular notice box for the full five seconds it remained on her screen until it slid back off. She shouldn’t. She didn’t have time. Plus, there was the whole already “emotionally vulnerable” state of affairs. Reading internet alerts about her sister was almost guaranteed to make her more “emotionally vulnerable.” She had promised herself, weeks ago, that she was going to turn these notifications off.
She stood up and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “Ryan! Paige! Cameron! Get up! Get ready!” she shouted before heading back to her computer.
Just a quick look, she told herself.
When she had learned you could do this, years ago, she thought it would be an easy way to keep up on any of the latest news about her sister and her books. Eileen never dreamed she would end up getting anywhere between five to ten alerts a day. She had always known her sister was a successful author. She could plainly see the evidence of it on the shelves of every store she walked into that sold books. It was only after she started reading about every book tour, new book contract, foreign rights deal, charity luncheon, celebrity book club endorsement, film adaptation option—only after seeing regular and daily evidence in the news of her sister’s extreme success—that Eileen realized Clare was much more than a successful author whose books flew off the shelves and into shopping carts.
No. Her sister, Clare Collins, was, according to Forbes, one of the Ten highest paid authors in the world. Eileen remembered that morning, four or five years ago, staring at that ridiculously high number next to her sister’s name sitting at the number-six spot on the Forbes list.
In a single year.
Her sister, the girl who had once shared a bedroom with her…who had loved eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese after school…who used to sit next to her on their sagging couch and fight with her over the remote, now earned lottery win–levels of dollars—every year.
Eileen clicked open the email and steeled herself for whatever fresh self-esteem low she was about to plunge into.
It was a picture of Clare, poised and statuesque, long neck, face turned slightly away from the camera so her chiseled cheekbones and prominent chin were captured perfectly. A long, pale-blue dress looked poured over her toned body, revealing every tightly calculated proportion as it spilled into a short train over the red carpet beneath her silver-stilettoed feet. The second shot was from behind. Clare’s long, auburn hair was styled in an updo so the dress’s plunging back would not be hidden beneath her silky waves. The only flaw, if you could even call it that, was the hint of Clare’s black inked tattoo, barely visible on her shoulder blade, creeping out from behind the dress. It hardly showed. Probably most people wouldn’t even notice it—most people didn’t even know Clare had that tattoo.
Eileen remembered the day she got it.
Startled, Eileen jumped in her seat and turned to see her sleepy youngest child, Cameron, nowhere even in the ballpark of ready for school. “You’re not dressed.”
“I don’t have any clean shorts.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. Cameron’s load of clean clothes was still sitting in a damp lump in the middle of her washing machine. “I know, I’m sorry.” She racked her brains for some alternative. “We’ll just put what you’re going to wear today in the dryer. It’ll be faster.”
“School starts in five minutes.”
Defeated, and obviously with no good solutions for anything this morning, Eileen nodded at her son.
“Is that Aunt Clare?” he asked, his eyes focused on the screen behind her.
“Why’s she so dressed up?”
“One of her books was made into a movie, and she went to the premiere last night.”
“Another movie?” Cameron beamed, his excitement erasing the last traces of sleepiness from his face. “Can we go see it?”
The pain—it was a real thing. Jealousy wormed through her gut like an infection. Eileen gave him a weak smile. “Of course.”
Cameron, her most sensitive and emotionally attuned kid, narrowed his eyes at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She turned in her seat and closed the internet browser on her screen so her glamorous sister was replaced by Eileen’s tangled mess of desktop icons.
“Are you sick?” Both of his hands landed on her cheeks and drew her face back to his.
She looked into his bright blue eyes, took a deep breath, sat up straight in her chair, and conjured a real smile. “I’m only a little sick.”
“Are you going to stay home today?” The hope in his voice gave away where this questioning would lead.
“No. And neither are you, or your brother, or your sister. We are all pulling it together and getting on with the day,” she declared. She stood up and went to drag Ryan and Paige out of bed. “Go pick something to wear out of the washer and put it in the dryer.”
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Cameron, giving up any last hope that he might spend the day at home playing video games instead of at school, slumped his shoulders and moved like a snail toward the laundry room. “You know, class starts in two minutes,” he called back to her.
“Just keep moving,” Eileen yelled back. “Faster.” Her own slippered feet raced up the stairs. “Paige! Ryan!”
An hour later, and after a frantic search for her car keys, which were eventually found in the sink of the downstairs bathroom, Eileen herded the last of her kids out the front door.
“I forgot my ID,” Ryan said, rushing back inside the house.
Eileen closed her eyes and took a breath. Something was wrong with her… It simply wasn’t this hard to get three kids to school and herself to work. She knew it. Every day, millions of families all over the world seemed to pull this off, on time.
Ryan finally came barreling back down the stairs, “Got it!” he said as he raced out the door. Eileen remembered to close the front door and lock it—something that hadn’t happened yesterday.
She adjusted her tote and camera bags on her shoulder, leaning to counterbalance the weight, and pressed the unlock button on the key fob several times as she walked down the porch steps. When she rounded the edge of the house and could see the drive, she was surprised to see all three of her children, not inside her car waiting for her, but standing next to Eric’s car.
Paige was pulling a large manila envelope from underneath one of the wiper blades on the windshield.
What is going on? Where is my car? Hasn’t Eric already left for work? Then it hit her—their fight, her assignment for him. “Will you please take my car and get the oil changed?”
Ryan snatched the envelope from Paige and turned away from her, protecting the prize. “I’m opening it. It’s probably for me!”
“I’m expecting something,” Paige countered, trying to snatch the envelope back.
“I saw it first.” Ryan clutched the envelope to his chest, his body turning and twisting against his sister’s every attack attempt.
“Mom?” Cameron asked. “Can I open it? Please?”
They were about to get into a fight—a real one. She could practically smell kid fights rushing in, seconds before someone shoved just a bit too hard, initiating a return strike that actually hurt, leading to a defensive kick—running, arms flailing.
“Stop!” she commanded, rushing into the fray and grabbing the envelope from Ryan. “What is wrong with you two? Get in the car, now!”
“Now!” Eileen finished. “For God’s sake, we don’t have time for this.”
“Well, whose fault is that?” Paige added in a withering tone as she sauntered to the front passenger door.
“I’m sitting in front,” Ryan called, rushing to get between his sister and the door. “I called it.”
“You did not!”
“I did! Ask Cameron. I called it before we came outside.”
“You can’t call it when everyone’s not there.”
Movement across the street caught her attention. Her neighbor with her erect spine and size-two body was pretending to not hear this “poor parenting” episode unraveling. Eileen watched as she slipped into her shiny black Mercedes. Her children were already at school. The nanny got them there on time every morning.
“Stop it,” Eileen hissed. “Get in the back, both of you. Cameron’s sitting up front.”
Paige turned on her. “Cameron’s not even old enough—”
“I. Don’t. Care. Get in the back. Now!”
“It’s not fair,” Ryan whined.
Eileen ignored him and unlocked the doors. Finally, everyone got in the car—all unhappy except Cameron.
“What should we listen to?” he asked as he reached for the radio, defining the battleground for the fight that would happen on the drive.
Eileen put the key in the ignition and started the car, the envelope from the windshield still in her left hand. Eric’s full name was handwritten across the front in black Sharpie.
“No!” Paige declared from the back. “We are not listening to country music, Cameron!”
Eileen turned her body in her seat and stuffed the envelope down the side of her tote so she could give it to Eric later.
“No radio.” She pushed the off button on the console. “We are having a moment of silence,” she finished as she shifted the car into reverse and backed down the drive.
Rebecca Taylor was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and spent most of her childhood moving with her military family from Canada to Okinawa and all over the United States. She spent her 20s working as an international flight attendant while pursuing degrees in psychology and sociology. She has since written eight novels, and currently lives in Colorado with her husband and two children. Learn more at: www.rebeccataylorbooks.com, @RebeccaAuthor (Twitter), @RebeccaTaylorPage (Facebook) and @RebeccaTaylorBooks (Instagram).