Friday, September 5, 2014

LAST FAMILY STANDING - Chapter 1

Following is the first chapter from my new novel, Last Family Standing, available September 15th from Abingdon Press. Enjoy!


CHAPTER 1

“Your daughter’s on television.”
“What?” I just about drop the spoon I’m using to stir my custard mixture. Is this a joke? A wrong number? I pull my cell phone away from my ear and read the ID on the screen. Nope. That’s Jules’s name, right under the picture of her wearing a red, white, and blue stovepipe hat at last year’s July 4th picnic.
“Monica? Are you there?”
Her voice calls through the speaker, and I slowly put the phone back to my ear. “Yeah. I’m here.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
I close my eyes and shake my head, as if that will bring some clarity to my mind. It doesn’t work. “I heard, but. . . are you sure?”
“Absolutely. I recorded it to the DVR so you can see for yourself.”
Leave it to Jules to think of the practical answer to my questions. “I’ll be right there.”
“I’ll leave the porch light on.”
As we end the call, I look down at the spoon I’m still holding, motionless in the sauce pan. Instead of creamy custard, I now have something more akin to runny scrambled eggs. It’s ruined. Being a chef, I don’t usually make such stupid mistakes, but I’m more than a little shell-shocked from the bomb that just fell on me.. I turn off the flame, pour the contents down the disposal, then drop the pot and spoon into the sink with a clatter.
Running upstairs to grab my shoes, scenes from the past flash through my memory.
The hospital. All those white walls. The antiseptic smell. The rhythmic squeak-click-click-squeak of the gurney. The turtle-shaped water spot on the delivery room ceiling. The sharp cry of lungs being filled with oxygen for the first time. When I turned my head away, one nurse said to the other, “She’s not keeping it. We’re supposed to give the baby right to the adoptive  parents.”
That had been my idea. Don’t give the baby to me. Why should I hold something that’s not mine to keep? I thought it would be easier that way.
I was wrong.
Still, twenty-five years later, I do believe I made the right decision for my daughter. As I stuff my feet into my sneakers, I still think it was the right thing to do. For everyone. Even so, my knees feel slightly wobbly as I trot back down the stairs. My hand shakes as I grab my house keys. And when I call to my dog, Ranger, my voice shakes.
“I’ve got to go out.”
He lifts his shaggy brown head from the couch and looks my way, no doubt thinking he can stop me with a longing look from his big, soulful eyes. But I dash right past him.
“Sorry, buddy. No walk tonight.”
As I pull the front door closed behind me, a velvety breeze rubs across my cheeks, my bare arms, and my shorts-clad legs. I’ve lived in the Las Vegas valley long enough to know that 100-degree weather during the day often results in the most wonderful night-time conditions. Everyone else on the block knows it, too, and it looks like most of them are taking advantage of it tonight.
Mr. Williams raises his hand in greeting as he approaches, and I wave back. His dog, a black and white Great Dane named Caesar, tugs him along, straining at the leash. It’s obvious who’s walking whom.
“Where’s Ranger?” Mr. Williams asks.
I motion behind me. “Hanging out at home. I’m heading over to see Jules.”
The wind picks up and a gust lifts his silver comb-over and drops it on the other side of his head. Smoothing it back in place with one hand, he nods. “Have fun, then. See you –” The rest of his words are blown away as Caesar propels him down the block.
I’m thankful for the wind. It provides an excuse to keep my head down. Hands stuffed in my pockets, shoulders curled forward, ponytail swinging wildly, I speed walk the three-house distance to Jules’s without having to interact with anyone else. 
Just as she promised, the porch light is on and I open the front door without knocking. Inside the foyer, I kick off my shoes and call out, “It’s me!” I’m immediately swarmed by tweenager John, and eight-year-old twins Jerrod and Justin.
“Hey Aunt Monica!”
“Did you bring something yummy?”
“Where’s Ranger?”
Opening my arms wide, I try to hug them all at once. “Sorry, boys. Only me tonight.” It’s pretty rare for me to come over here without some kind of food offering for the rug rats.
“Guys, give Aunt Monica some breathing room.” Jules leans her five-foot-nine-inch frame over the boys, bracing one hand on Jerrod’s head, and plants a kiss on my cheek. Then she looks back down at her sons. “Head upstairs. Now.”
The three grumble in unison, but they don’t argue. It makes me wonder what Jules said to them before I got here. Did she tell them we needed to have a big-person talk? Or did she warn them there might be crying? The threat of experiencing female emotion would be enough to scare them away for at least the rest of the night. Possibly till puberty.
Jules links her arm through mine and pulls me through the house. We pass the room they use as an office, and a voice calls out. “Hey, Monica.”
“Hey, Jackson,” I call back to her husband. Apparently, he’s also been warned about the high likelihood of hysterics.
“You want a drink?” She asks as we walk through the kitchen.
“What have you got?”
“Everything we need for killer root beer floats.”
“Ooh, the hard stuff.” I shake my head. “Maybe later.”
When we get to the family room, my eyes immediately fly to the flat screen TV mounted on the wall, but it’s not even on.
“In a second.” Jules pats my back. “First, you need some details. Let’s sit down.”
We settle on the worn, chocolate brown sectional. I was with her when she picked it out. Chocolate was my suggestion, because I thought it would hide stains. She angles toward me and puts one hand flat on the seat cushion, right next to a big, dark spot of something. As it turns out, the antics of three young boys can’t be hidden, no matter how hard you try.
We look at each other, and I realize that for once my strong, take-charge friend is at a loss for words. So I get us started. “What was she doing on TV?”
Jules tucks a piece of blond hair behind her ear, but her hairstyle is so short, it just looks like she’s stroking the top of her ear. “You know that reality show I watch? Last Family Standing?”
I nod. “Yeah. It’s the one with the hot-but-snarky host.”
She sighs, but her mouth quirks up into a grin. “Why is that the only thing you remember about the show?”
Because I only watched it once, just to please her. And since I didn’t know who any of the contestants were or what was going on, all I had to concentrate on was the host. Who was pretty memorable.
“The basics are simple,” Jules says. “The season starts out with eight teams made up of two family members. All the teams are dumped in a remote location and have to rough it while they compete against each other until only two family teams are left. Then the audience votes to decide the winner.”
I hold my palm out to her. “Forgive me if I’m not fascinated, but what difference does it make? What does this have to do with my daughter?”
“Tonight was the season finale, and at the end, they introduce some of the contestants for the next season. She was one of them.” Jules looks down for a second, rubbing her finger along the edge of the cushion stain.
Now that I’ve had some time to process the news, questions begin to bubble up in my brain. “How do you know it’s her? You don’t even know what she looks like. Heck, I don’t even know what she looks like.”
“She looks a lot like you.”
I immediately picture a younger version of myself: dark auburn hair, blue eyes, and an upper lip that I’ve always thought was a bit too thin. Does she feel the same way? Does she ever look into the mirror and give it a pouty smile, making her lips as prominent as possible?
What am I doing? I shake my head, banishing the daydream and pulling my focus back to reality. 
“But that could be a coincidence. I have one of those faces, you know? People are always asking if they know me from somewhere.” I sigh. That’s it. That has to be it. “It’s just a mistake. She must be someone else’s –”
“She has your picture.”
The blood in my veins immediately converts to ice water. “My picture? Are you sure?”
Jules offers up a gentle smile. “Yes. It’s your graduation photo. And it has your first name and the date written on the back.”
My spine seems to have lost the ability to hold me upright. My shoulders slump and I plop back against the cushions. I don’t understand any of this. I chose the birth parents from a book full of hopefuls, and we even met once. But I never gave them my name, or a photo, or anything that would tie us together.
“Hey,” Jules grabs my hand and squeezes it between both of hers. “Are you okay?”
“No.” Only a handful of people know about this chapter of my life. Looking into the concerned eyes of my best friend, I’m glad she’s one of them. “I’m about as un-okay as you can get.”
She understands. The consummate nurturer, Jules also understands the importance of what we want to do versus what we need to do. She leans over and snatches the remote from the coffee table. “You ready?”
Can I ever be ready for this? Half an hour ago I was living a happy, uncomplicated life. My biggest worries were wondering if I should take Ranger to the vet for a teeth cleaning, and keeping the eggs from curdling in my custard. Now, I’m a woman with a past. A past that’s about to come to life before my eyes.
God help me. Please help me. I’m so not ready.
Without waiting for me to answer, Jules pushes a few buttons, bringing the TV screen to life.
Ready or not, here she comes.


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