At first, I thought the blue glow that caught my eye was coming from my own laptop, but the light wasn’t coming from my house. It shone from the otherwise dark windows of Gus’s place, bright enough that I could see him pacing in front of his table. He stopped suddenly and bent to type for a moment, then picked a beer bottle up off the table and began to pace again, his hand running through his hair.
I recognized that choreography well. He could love-struck pirates and werewolves me all he wanted, but when it came down to it, Augustus Everett was still pacing in the dark, making shit up like the rest of us.
PETE LIVED IN a pink Victorian on the edge of the college campus. Even in the thunderstorm that had whipped off the lake that Monday evening, her home looked sweet as a dollhouse.
I parked along the curb and stared up at its ivy-encroached windows and charming turrets. The sun hadn’t totally set yet, but the soft gray clouds that filled the sky diffused any light to a dim greenish glow, and the garden that sprawled from Pete’s porch to her white picket fence looked lush and magical beneath its shroud of mist. This was the perfect escape from the writing cave I’d been hiding in all day.
I grabbed the tote bag full of signed bookmarks and Southern Comfort quote-pins from the passenger seat and jumped out of the car, pulling my hood up as I bolted through the rain and eased the gate open to slip in along the cobbled path.
Pete’s garden was, quite possibly, the most picturesque place I’d ever been, but the best part might’ve been that, over the rumble of thunder, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd was playing so loudly that the porch was shivering as I stepped onto it.
Before I could knock, the door swung open and Pete, very full plastic blue wineglass in hand, sang out, “Jaaaaaaaaaaaaanuary Andrews!”
Somewhere behind her, a chorus of voices sang back, “January Annnnnndrews!”
“Peeeeete,” I sang in response, holding out the bottle of chardonnay I’d grabbed from the store on the way over. “Thanks so much for having me.”
“Ohhhh.” She accepted the bottle of wine and scrunched up her eyes as she examined the label, then chuckled. It was called POCKETFUL OF POSIES, but I’d scratched POSIES out and written PETES in its place. “Sounds French!” she joked. “Which is the Dutch word for fancy!” She waved for me to follow her down the hall, toward the music. “Come on in and meet the girls.”
There was a pile of shoes, mostly sandals and hiking boots, arranged neatly on a rug by the door, so I kicked off my heeled green rain boots and followed the barefoot trail Pete cut down the hall. Her toenails were painted lavender to match her fresh manicure, and in her faded jeans and white linen button-up, she struck a softer image than she had at the store.
We swept past a kitchen whose granite countertops were crowded with liquor bottles and stepped into the living room at the back of the house. “Normally, we use the garden, but normally God isn’t bowling a perfect game overhead, so inside will have to do tonight. We’re just waiting on one more.”
The room was small enough to feel crowded with the five people total inside it. Of course, the three black Labradors snoozing on the couch (two of them) and armchair (the third) didn’t help. Bright green wooden chairs had been dragged in, ostensibly for the humans to sit in, and arranged to form a small semicircle. One of the dogs jumped up and wandered, tail wagging, through the sea of legs to greet me.
“Girls,” Pete said, touching my back, “this is January. January brought wine!”
“Wine, how lovely!” a woman with long blonde hair said, sweeping forward to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. When the blonde pulled back, Pete passed her the bottle of wine, then edged around the room toward the sound system. “I’m Maggie,” the blonde said. Her tall, willowy stature was made more striking by the sea of drapey white things she’d dressed herself in. She smiled down at me, equal parts Galadriel Lady of the Golden Wood and aging Stevie Nicks, and the wrinkled corners of her brown eyes crinkled sweetly. “So lovely to meet you, January.”
Pete’s voice came a bit too loudly as the music dropped out from under it: “She’s Mrs. Pete.”
Maggie’s serene smile seemed to be a version of an affectionate eye roll. “Just Maggie will do. And this is Lauren.” She opened an arm to make room for me to shake hands with the dreadlocked woman in the orange sundress. “And back there, on the couch, is Sonya.”
Sonya. The name hit my stomach like a hammer. Before I’d even seen her, my mouth went dry. My vision fuzzed at the corners.
“Hi, January,” That Woman said meekly from under the snoring Labradors. She forced a smile. “Nice to see you.”
The Book Club
WAS THERE A dignified way to happen upon your dead father’s lover? If so, I imagined it wasn’t blurting I have to pee, jerking free the bottle of wine you’d handed your host, and running back down the hall in search of a bathroom. But that was the best I could come up with.
I twisted the top off the wine and poured it down my throat, right there in the nautical-themed bathroom. I considered leaving, but for some reason, that seemed like the most embarrassing option. Still, it occurred to me that I could walk out the door, get into the car, and drive to Ohio without stopping. I’d never have to see any of these people again. I could get a job at Ponderosa Steakhouse. Life could be grand! Or I could just stay in this bathroom, forever. I had wine; I had a toilet; what else did one need?
Admittedly, it was not my good attitude and strength of spirit that got me out of the bathroom. It was the shuffle of steps and conversation moving down the hallway, the sound of Pete saying, “Oh, you’re sure you can’t stay?” in a voice that made it sound much more like What the hell, Sonya? Why is that weird little girl afraid of you? and of Sonya saying, “No, I wish I could, but I totally forgot this work call—my boss won’t stop emailing until I’m in the car and on my Bluetooth.”
“Bluetooth shmootooth,” Pete was saying.
“Indeed,” I said into my wine bottle. The chardonnay was hitting me fast. I thought my way backward through my day, recounting my meals in an attempt to understand my immediate tipsiness. The only thing I could be sure I’d eaten was the fistful of mini marshmallows I’d grabbed on my way to a much-needed pee break.
The front door was opening. Goodbyes were being said over the pitter-patter of rain against the roof, and I was still locked in a bathroom.
I set the bottle on the sink, looked at myself in the mirror, and pointed fiercely at my small brown eyes. “This will be the hardest night you have all summer,” I whispered. It was a lie, but I totally bought it. I smoothed my hair, shrugged out of my jacket, hid the wine bottle in my tote bag, and stepped back into the hallway.
“Sonya had to dip out,” Pete said, but it sounded more like What the hell, January?
“Oh?” I said. “That’s too bad.” But it sounded more like Praise be to the Bluetooth Shmootooth!
“Indeed,” Pete said.
I followed her back to the living room, where the Labradors had rearranged themselves, along with the ladies. One of the dogs had moved over to the far side of the couch, Maggie having taken the vacant spot left behind, while the second one had relocated to the armchair, mostly on top of the third. Lauren was sitting in one of the high-backed green chairs, and Pete gestured for me to take the one next to her as she slid into a third. Pete checked the time on her leather watch. “Should be here any minute. Must’ve gotten caught in the storm! I’m sure we’ll be able to get started soon.”