At first the car ride was simply annoying. Edie slouched in the back seat of the SUV, clutching her mom’s sticker-coated guitar case. Her uncle Bert kept his eye on the road, characteristically quiet. Her aunt Norah blithely rattled on from the passenger seat, characteristically not so quiet. She was lost in speculation about the challenges Poor Edith would face now that she’d left foster care and come to live in “a real home.” Edie didn’t have a stable upbringing, a private education, or any exposure to society. Her wardrobe was atrocious. Her posture was appalling. She had bright orange cheese powder under her ragged fingernails, proving she had no understanding of proper diet or personal care. She was practically poisoning herself.
“And that hair!” Norah exclaimed. “Good lord, what will the neighbors say?”
Edie sank a little lower and tried to finger comb through the worst of her tangles, unsure why the neighbors would care about something as trivial as her hair. The purple dye that clung to the tips had long since faded to a subtle shade of lavender. The rest was a painfully ordinary shade of brown. It was dry and frizzy, and she hadn’t cut it for a couple years, but it was just hair.
“Don’t worry,” Bert assured Norah, drawing her attention away from the back seat. “You’ll get Edith up to snuff in no time. Why, look what you’ve done with me.”
“Yes, you’re right, of course.” Norah sighed while adjusting Bert’s shirt collar. “I do have a talent for improving people. The ladies in the club are always remarking on it.”
Edie assumed Norah was referring to her Great Hearts, Good Causes club, which she’d been boasting about lately. Since joining last summer, Norah had apparently fundraised for Nigerian schoolchildren, Syrian refugees, and hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. Now she was determined to outdo all her neighbors by displaying her Great Heart on her very own doorstep. After all, anyone could send money to “those other people.” Few had the fortitude and generosity to let a poor relation live under the same roof, almost like family.
“We’re putting you in the east room,” Norah said as Bert turned off the highway.
“The big one in the corner?” Edie blinked away her surprise.
“I know,” Norah said as if surprised, herself. “Normally we save it for guests, but we’re not expecting anyone until summer.”
Edie gripped the guitar case a little tighter as she mentally checked off yet another title she wouldn’t hold during her stay: family, guest, anyone. She shook off her growing irritation by silently reciting the mantra she and her best friend, Shonda, had developed while dealing with bitchy customers back at the Burger Barn in Ithaca. Think it. Don’t say it. She could imagine a giant swarm of flying piranhas busting through the front windshield and reducing Norah to a small mound of bone dust and a pair of pearl teardrop earrings. She simply had to smile politely while she pictured it.
When Bert drove by the ENTERING MANSFIELD, INC. 1770 sign, Edie recalled the last time she’d visited. It was more than seven years ago, back when her mom’s massive blowout with her sister led to a mutual boycott on family visits. Edie had been startled by her mom’s ferocity, and a little impressed, too. The two of them made a pinkie pledge that day to never enter Mansfield again. Now Edie was breaking that pledge. A little knot of guilt and grief formed in her gut. It tightened as the familiar landmarks continued to speed past: the ice cream shop, the library, the murky and probably polluted lake that Edie and her mom used to plunge into on hot summer days. Childhood memories flooded her, one after the other, rushing in faster than she could handle. She accidentally let out a sniffle. Then another.
Norah craned around from the front seat.
“Don’t sulk, dear,” she scolded, gentle but condescending. “Bashful, I can handle. Awkward, we can work on, but I can’t abide sulking.”
Edie wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“I was just thinking about my mom,” she said as the tears continued falling.
Bert flashed her a sympathetic smile through the rearview mirror. Edie gratefully returned it. Norah, true to character, took no notice of either of them.
“I understand a few tears,” she said, “but while you’re with us, please try to demonstrate a little moderation.”
“Moderation?” Edie asked, unsure how such a thing was possible. What was she supposed to do, cry every other tear?
Bert reached over and patted Norah’s hand where it rested on her lap.
“It’s only been three years,” he quietly reminded her. “And a girl only has one mother.”
“I only had one sister,” Norah countered. “But at some point even Frances would want us to move on.”
Edie felt her temper rise, simmering under her skin like shaken soda-pop. She could handle being criticized. She’d prepared herself for endless disapproval, mandatory gratitude, and the uniquely tenacious agony of feeling like she’d never fit in. She’d even expected the ugly jolt of betrayal she felt for violating the pact she’d made with her mom. But she couldn’t believe Norah was putting a statute of limitations on missing someone. Then again, limitations had always been one of her specialties.
“I suppose a bit of moodiness is to be expected,” Norah continued with a sigh. “Frances was always so temperamental, and you know what they say about the apple.”
“It keeps the doctor away?” Bert snuck Edie a wink.
Norah shot him a glare.
“It doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she said.
Edie bit her tongue, desperate to prove Norah wrong about her temper. The task grew increasingly difficult when Norah failed to cease her censure, soften her put-upon sighs, or get eaten by flying piranhas. By the time Bert pulled the car into the long and winding driveway, Edie was ready to explode. A thousand words pressed at her lips, none of them polite. Her only solution was to bolt before she said something she’d regret.
The second Bert’s key turned in the lock at the side of the house, Edie ran past him, her old army duffel in one hand, the guitar case in the other.
“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?” Norah challenged.&nbs...