P r o l o g u e
Clara stared at the rectangular, gift-wrapped box in her hands, smiling from ear to ear. “A present?” she asked her fiancé. “For me? But why? I don’t understand.” It wasn’t her birthday or Christmas. Heck, it wasn’t even Flag Day.
“What do you mean, but why?” Sebastian, just home from a long day at work and still wearing his winter coat, leaned in toward her for a kiss, which she happily accepted.
“Why do I get a gift?” Clara recognized the shiny silver bow as part of the signature wrapping from Ivy, her favorite boutique in Boston.
Sebastian shrugged, his brown eyes twinkling as he gazed at her. “Just because.”
Shaking her head, Clara let out a little laugh. “Of course. Just because. I should have known.” Just because was one of his preferred reasons for doing things. Sebastian didn’t need a designated holiday or special event to extend a kind gesture or express how much he cared about her. Every day with him was special, not to mention unpredictable, which Clara never took for granted. Forget Saturday night dinner—he would surprise Clara by taking her out for a romantic date on a random Tuesday evening. He didn’t rely on Valentine’s Day as a reason to give her a heartfelt love note, or Mother’s Day to lavish her with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, despite the fact that she was not yet a mother (although they had already decided to name their first daughter Edith, their first son Julian, and their first dog—whenever they finally found proper time to devote to one, that is—Milk Dud). His strikingly thoughtful nature was just one of the many reasons Clara had fallen head over heels in love with Sebastian over a decade ago.
Still standing near the front door of their recently purchased “starter home,” where Clara had run to greet him as soon as she heard his car pull in the driveway, Sebastian sniffed the air in an exaggerated fashion. “Is that brownies I smell?”
“Sure is.” Clara grinned, aware of how much he adored her homemade goodies. Since she was a child, she had always loved baking. But nothing beat baking for Sebastian, who, with a raging sweet tooth the size of Asia, typically made her feel as if she could put both Betty Crocker and the Keebler Elves to absolute shame.
He inhaled the heavenly chocolate aroma and planted another kiss on her lips, this one longer and steamier than the last. “I knew there was a good reason why I decided to marry you.”
She laughed. “Yeah, how about because you love me beyond words and I’m the woman of your dreams?”
“Well … I suppose there’s that too.”
Clara cocked her head to the side, narrowing her eyes. “Need I remind you that I still have eight weeks, three days”—she glanced at her watch—“and one hour to change my mind about saying I do?” she teased. Like a child counting down the days until Christmas, Clara was tallying the minutes until she would officially become Mrs. Sebastian McKinley at the end of March. If she’d been any more excited, it was likely that horse tranquilizers would have been required to get her to sleep at night.
“Can I open my present now?” She gave it a curious little shake.
“Be my guest.”
Clara tore open the box to discover a bright red pair of flannel pajamas covered with whimsical white stars. Several weeks earlier, she and Sebastian had been taking a twilight stroll around Bean Town when the pajamas displayed in the window at Ivy caught her attention. She’d casually mentioned she liked them, but hardly paid them any mind and forgot all about them within minutes. But not Sebastian. He secretly returned to the store the next day in between appointments with patients to buy them. The busy podiatrist knew they would make Clara happy. And seeing her happy made him happy. Just because.
“Honey …” Her jaw hung open. “These are the PJs from our walk. I can’t believe you remembered!”
“Come on, I remember everything you say,” Sebastian replied sheepishly. And it was true. When Clara spoke, he really listened, not just with his ears, but also with his heart. Early in their relationship, when they were first getting to know each other, Clara had shared that her favorite poet was Walt Whitman. Several months later, Sebastian returned from a reflexology conference in New York with a surprise for her: a first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of only eight hundred copies reportedly published. Upon receiving the rare treasure, Clara had been too stunned to respond verbally, but the tears in her eyes reflected how much it meant to her. The binding was damaged, a few pages were missing, and it smelled like old cabbage soup, but the fact that the book came from Sebastian only increased its precious value to her. Indeed, his genuine attentiveness was something that Clara never took for granted. She knew damn well how special her fiancé was. And she knew, without a question of a doubt, that she was the luckiest girl in the world.
“These PJs are so soft!” Clara traced her finger across the flannel. “I love them. Thank you, baby.”
“You’re welcome. I hope I got the right size.”
Clara flashed him her most seductive smile. “Hmm … why don’t I go try them on and see?” Then, taking hold of his hand, she slowly began leading him toward the staircase, adding in a raspy, provocative tone, “That way you can take them off me.”
“Twist my arm,” Sebastian gave her bottom a playful pat before chasing her up the stairs.
* * *
“Mourners? Excuse me, may I have your attention?” Leo, the funeral director, raised his arm in the humid afternoon air, commanding the attention of the quietly chattering crowd dressed mostly in black. He cleared his throat, waiting for silence to prevail. “On behalf of my little sister, Clara, I’d like to thank everybody for coming today, and invite you all to please gather around the grave. The ceremony is about to begin,” he announced in a controlled, solemn tone, which he’d practiced using earlier that day, speaking into a hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror. Then, as if an imaginary light bulb suddenly illuminated in his mind, he quickly added, “Oh! And please be careful not to step on any lettuce or tomatoes! Mind the veggies.” He glanced at Libby, his mother, who had reminded him several times that morning to please urge guests not to traipse all over her treasured garden.
Winking, she gave Leo an encouraging thumbs-up gesture with her free hand. Her other hand was clasped tightly around Clara’s.
The previous afternoon, Clara had arrived home from ballet class to discover Leo standing at the open front door with his arms folded across his chest and his eyebrows furrowed. He appeared to be waiting for her. And he did not look happy.
“Come on, butt-face, let’s go sit down,” Leo suggested in an odd tone.
Clara trailed her brother into the den and plopped herself down on the sofa. Though there was plenty of space on it, Leo sat directly beside her.
“Listen, Clara”—he cleared his throat, swallowing hard—“um, something very bad happened while you were at kindergarten.” He looked away, but Clara witnessed the flash of sadness in his emerald eyes. Then, inhaling a deep breath and facing her once again, Leo softly explained, “It’s Porkchop … he died.”
For Clara, time stopped.
All she remembered was her brother’s hand on top of hers.
Clara could not speak.
She could barely breathe.
“I know he was yours, and I know how much you loved him. We all did,” Leo assured her with the sensitivity of a wise adult, rather than an eight-year-old boy who glued his hand to the wall earlier that week in order “to test how strong” super glue really is. “But, Porkchop was a very, very old cat, Clara, and he just—” Leo’s voice cracked. “He just … never woke up from his nap today.”
Great big tears spilled down Clara’s cheeks, and she felt a searing pain worse than anything she’d yet to suffer in all her six years—even worse than the time she gave Natalie Marissa, her most favorite Cabbage Patch Kiddoll, a ghastly, lopsided haircut, only to discover that orange yarn never grows back.
“I’m sorry.” Leo quickly wiped his wet eyes.
As Clara sat there in her pink leotard and tutu, sobbing uncontrollably, she thought she saw Libby peek her head in the room, but if she did, she chose not to intrude, and instantly disappeared.
Clara and her brother remained on the couch while she cried for what felt to her like a very long time. Leo put his arm tightly around her shoulders and didn’t say another word.
No words were needed.
* * *
“I told you before we got here, it’s impolite to poop at funerals! Bad dog!” Clara’s friend, Hazel, scolded Motley Crue, her Great Dane.
“Don’t worry, Hazel,” comforted Leo. “Considering today’s guests, I doubt old Motley’ll be the only one who goes on the grass.”
Earlier that Saturday morning, before Clara woke (and without his mother’s permission), Leo had dug a fresh hole near Libby’s tomato plants in their backyard and organized a memorial service for later that afternoon. Most of their neighborhood friends had pets, and as Leo knocked on local door after door, sharing the news about Porkchop, he made sure to stress that both human beings and animals were welcome at the ceremony.
Leo insisted on wearing his best (and only) suit to Porkchop’s burial. Due to a juice spill on her navy dress earlier that week, Clara’s dark apparel options were limited to either a black bathing suit or a Grim Reaper costume (complete with scythe) from last Halloween—which, considering the circumstance, didn’t feel quite right. Thus, she opted for the swimsuit. She panicked upon realizing that Natalie Marissa also lacked proper attire, but Libby saved the day, as usual, by fashioning her a simple, toga-style dress out of a black plasticgarbage bag. Libby also explained, “Often at these events, people like to cover their heads,” and offered to create a handy Hefty hat for Clara’s doll. But in the face of real tragedy, Clara no longer cared about a bad haircut.
Porkchop’s funeral was attended by five boys, six girls, two adults, four dogs, three cats, and one and a half bunnies (“Ernestine” was pregnant), among others. The first mourners to arrive were Hazel and Motley Crue, whom Leo welcomed, placing the tray of ants-on-a-log that Hazel had made all by herself between the funeral sign-in book and the platter of cupcakes that Libby had baked on the picnic table nearby. “I made ’em with extra ants, just how you like,” Hazel said, grinning at Clara. Giving her hand a tight squeeze, she softly added, “I like your bathing suit.”
Makiko from down the block—accompanied by her gerbil, Barnabus—wore an ornate, turquoise kimono. Feeling a familiar lump forming in her throat, Clara gently stroked Barnabus’s tan coat. “You know, it is okay if you are sad or needing to cry,” said Makiko. “Dying is awful. Here …” She offered Clara one of her breezy kimono sleeves.
“Oh, no you don’t!” interrupted old Mrs. Stewart, the kind, gray-haired lady from across the street who didn’t have any grandchildren of her own and had more or less adopted all of the neighborhood kids. “Use this instead,” she said, handing Clara a tissue and then enveloping her in an enormous hug, whispering, “I am so very sorry, Clara Black.”
Libby was careful not to get in the way of things, but every time Clara glanced in her direction, she found her mother’s eyes on her, and Libby’s warm smile was a comfort.
Once the guests had formed a circle around the grave, Leo shared his favorite memory about Clara’s beloved cat and invited the group to tell theirs. When it was Clara’s turn, she slowly stepped forward, fishing her swimsuit out of her fanny crack with one hand and clutching Natalie Marissa to her chest with the other. Shaking, she recited from memory the following haiku, which she’d composed earlier that day while hiding in her tree house, Maple Manor:
I miss you Porkchop
my dead furry pet and friend
I’ll always love you
After a simple R.I.P. marker had been laid at Porkchop’s grave, everyone—including Motley Crue—bowed their heads for a moment of silence. To conclude the service, Clara’s next-door neighbor, Cotton, played “Silent Night” on his new flute. He’d been taking lessons for just a few weeks, and that was the only song he knew how to play. About halfway through, right around “all is calm,” he hit a wrong note and snapped, “Fuck!” (Cotton had a devious older brother with a habit of cussing). The children immediately turned to Libby and Mrs. Stewart to gage the adults’ reaction. Clara noticed her mother fighting to suppress her amusement, and then Mrs. Stewart shrugged and said, “Phooey! If you can’t say ‘fuck’ on a day like today, what’s the word good for?”
All of the children’s jaws dropped open, and Hazel clasped both hands over her mouth in disbelief.
Libby burst out laughing. “She’s right! But we really ought not to make a habit of using that terrib—” She was chortling too hard to complete her sentence.
And a nanosecond later, the entire group was doubled over cackling.
While Clara was sitting on Libby’s lap during the reception, licking the frosting off a chocolate cupcake and pondering the universe, she asked if Porkchop was in heaven with Daddy. Her father, James Black, hadn’t been sick a day in his life when he dropped dead of a sudden heart attack at age thirty-five, leaving Libby with two kids under age three to raise on her own. Leo claimed to remember him, but he also claimed to have night vision and the ability to levitate. Clara had no memory of her father, but one of her prized possessions was a small, framed photograph of the two of them taking a nap together in a hammock when she was just a tiny baby. Libby had always kept it on top of her piano in the music room—the space most commonly referred to as the “living” room in a majority of homes—among a collection of her favorite family photos, but one night when Clara was feeling rather blue, she brought the picture up to her bedroom to keep her company. At Libby’s insistence, it had been hers ever since. “To answer your question”—Libby took a bite out of Clara’s cupcake—“I believe Porkchop is with Daddy, and that they’re having a wonderful time together in heaven.”
“Me too,” Clara concurred.
“Well, I don’t think we could have given Porkchop a nicer sendoff.”
“Nope,” said Clara, grinning.
* * *
Indeed, it was such a lovely funeral that it became the funeral to which all others that followed would be compared. And twenty-seven years later, it was one of the very first thoughts that crossed Clara’s mind when she was informed by a solemn-looking police officer that Sebastian was dead.
N O V E M B E R
“This is ridiculous. We’ve been sitting out here for ten minutes. You’re going to have to leave the car eventually,” Leo told Clara. He glanced at her slumped in the passenger seat of his Jeep, staring off into space. “You didn’t fly all the way from Boston to wait in Libby’s snowy driveway.”
“I know. I know …” Clara shivered as she pulled her wool scarf over her mouth. “Please,” she closed her eyes, exhaling a weighty sigh. “Just give me two more minutes to mentally prepare and then I’ll be ready to go inside.”
“That’s what you said two minutes ago.” Leo tapped his thumbs against the steering wheel, not bothering to hide his worried expression. “You’re stalling.”
Clara didn’t respond.
“Look”—he paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully as he studied his younger sister—“I know you haven’t been home in a long time, and I know you’re anxious about this weekend, but it’s not gonna be that bad. Really. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of joy, not torture.”
“True. But you’re not the one under a microscope,” Clara mumbled in a meek voice, shrinking in her seat like a child.
Leo shook his head. “Neither are you.” Smiling, he gave Clara’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before turning off the ignition. He threw open the car door, letting in a frosty blast of November night air. “And if Libby catches us sitting out here in the dark cold like this, she’ll only worry about you more.”
Clara rolled her eyes. “Like that’s possible?”
“Sorry. You know I love you.” And with that, Leo slammed his hand on the horn, alerting their anxiously awaiting mother that they were home.
“Hallelujah! You’re here!” Libby squealed from upstairs when she heard her children enter the front door, to which a colorful Welcome Home Clara! banner had been affixed. She’d planned to join Leo in retrieving Clara from the airport, but ended up stuck at home with Todd, the perpetually tardy but drop-dead gorgeous, part-time piano technician, who had arrived three hours late to service her Steinway due to a last-minute gig he’d booked modeling menswear for the Sears catalogue. It was an annual holiday tradition for Libby Black, an internationally renowned winner of five Clio awards (the equivalent to an Oscar in advertising), to entertain her Thanksgiving party guests with a medley of her most famous commercial jingles, and she had no intention of performing with an instrument that didn’t share her perfect pitch. “Finally! I love you I love you I love you!” She bounded down the mahogany staircase at lightning speed with her untied bathrobe flying behind her like a superhero’s cape. When she reached the bottom, she wrapped Clara in a powerful embrace. “Clara-pie! It is so wonderful to finally have you home.” Libby squeezed her even tighter, cradling Clara’s head in the back of her hand. “Oh, thank God you’re here,” she whispered. “Thank God …”
Clara had not returned to her childhood home in River Pointe, a suburb located north of Chicago and filled mostly with successful lawyers, doctors, and other “highfalutin types”—as Leo called them—since before the fatal automobile accident that claimed her fiancé’s life the previous March, less than two weeks before they were to be married. Prior to this tragedy, Clara had made it a regular habit of visiting her mother and brother at least once every few months, if not more often. The hardest part about living in Boston was not being near Leo and Libby; however, planning frequent trips to the Windy City helped dull the pain of the distance and made it at least a little bit more tolerable. Sebastian often teased Clara that if they had a dollar for every time she said, “I wish we lived closer to my family,” they would have been millionaires. Clara agreed. This was the longest period of time she had ever stayed away—a point Libby highlighted during a recent, tense telephone conversation when Clara mentioned there was a chance she might remain in Boston this year for Thanksgiving.
“No way. Not happening, sweetheart,” Libby had threatened, worried more than ever about her depressed daughter’s increasingly withdrawn behavior. “If you believe for one second that you’re spending the holidays alone, I’m telling you right now that you’re mistaken. I am not going to let you wallow in misery doing God knows what.You may be thirty-four, but you are still my baby, and I will drive to goddamn Bean Town, throw you in the goddamn backseat, and drag you back to River goddamn Pointe myself if I have to. Do you understand me? I am not messing around,” promised Libby.
“Yeah. I got that,” Clara had snapped.
Libby inhaled a slow, deep breath. When she spoke again, it was with a softer, milder tone. “Believe me, Clara-pie … I’ve been where you are now. I lost a husband. I know how difficult the holidays are. And I know how much it hurts not to have Sebastian here. I honestly do. But, I’ve got news for you. Like it or not, you are going to have to get back in the swing of things and get on with your life. Take it from one who knows. And trust me, it will be a hell of a lot easier if you stop isolating yourself and let the people who love you in, rather than insisting on going it alone.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” countered Clara, growing short on patience.
“Oh, that’s exactly what you’re doing,” Libby assured her.
Sebastian had been gone for eight months now, though to Clara it felt more like an eternity, each gloomy day blending into the next. And the last thing she had wanted to do was discuss it with her mother. “Fine,” she muttered, trying her best not to dwell on the tragedy that had taken her soul mate—her anchor—away from her, leaving her drifting and unglued.
“There’s been an accident near Logan Airport,” the solemn-sounding Boston police officer had told Clara during the haunting telephone phone call that forever altered her world. “An accident …”
“Just please stop this annoying soap opera speech, Libby. I can’t take any more talk about Sebastian, okay?” Clara’s chest ached with excruciating emptiness even to conjure her fiancé’s name. “You made your point, and I will see you at Thanksgiving. Happy? Gotta run! There’s someone at the door.” Clara hung up the phone abruptly.
There wasn’t really someone at the door.
Now, in the warmly lit foyer of the home Clara grew up in, she remained locked in her mother’s tight, organ-crushing embrace.
“It’s such a relief to see you,” Libby said, beaming.
“Nice to see you too,” Clara responded halfheartedly.
About thirty seconds later, when Libby still hadn’t let her go, she silently mouthed, “Help!”to Leo, who stood nearby beside her suitcase.
Obviously amused, he warned their mother, “Careful, now. You break her, you buy her. House rules.”
Libby loosened her grip on Clara, but did not release her. Instead, her hands explored the length of Clara’s spine, vertebra by vertebra. Then, suddenly, they moved to both sides of Clara’s protruding ribcage, patting it up and down before she gasped, “You’re a bone! Let me look at you …” Finally letting her daughter go, Libby stepped backward, an alarmed expression spreading across her face. “Jesus Christ. And you’re pale as a ghost. When was the last time you ate?” She paused, gawking. “August? Honey, I have never seen you this small before.”
“I can assure you, I’m the same size I’ve always been,” Clara muttered. “You just haven’t seen me in a while, that’s all.”
“I can assure you, that ain’t it, kiddo. Try again. You’re practically emaciated.” Turning to Leo with one hand planted on her hip, Libby demanded, “Doesn’t your sister look emaciated?”
“Uh … I—I don’t know.” He shrugged, clearly not appreciating being thrust into the spotlight. “I … reckon she might be a little on the skinny side.”
“A little?” Libby parroted at the same exact time that Clara, equally surprised by her brother’s choice of words, repeated, “You reckon?” Leo had a puzzling habit of only “reckoning” things when tangled in the process of whipping up a big, fat lie. Curiously, he never seemed to “reckon” diddly-squat when telling the truth.
“Huh.” Clara blinked at his choice of words. “You really … reckon?” She wondered if perhaps it might be true. Clara glanced in the bathroom mirror on most mornings after she got out of the shower when she was combing her wet hair, but she rarely, if ever, bothered to really look at her reflection. It made no difference to her anymore.
Exasperated, Leo sighed. “What do I know?”
Tilting her head to the side, Libby raised a pointer finger to her chin, examining Clara. “A buck fifteen. A buck twenty, tops,” she announced after several contemplative seconds. “You don’t weigh a pound over. Believe me.” Libby Black had always considered herself to have two special, God-given gifts in life: one was perfect pitch, and the other was the ability to accurately assess an object’s weight without the aid of an outside instrument. The latter had earned her the nickname “The Human Scale” at the Libertyville County Fair, where she had worked for three consecutive summers during her teenage years as the Guess-Your-Weight-or-What-Month-You-Were-Born Girl. This unique skill also came in handy at the supermarket. Libby knew exactly what a pound of cherries looked and felt like, and when her children were younger, she often turned grocery shopping into a fun game, challenging them to try to stump her. If they succeeded, for their prize they could each choose any box of sugar cereal that they fancied (a stellar reward in the mind of a freeze-dried-marshmallow-obsessed girl whose personal heroes at the time included Cap’n Crunch and the monstrously dreamy Count Chocula). Clara and Leo would hand Libby what they estimated to be a one-pound bag of snap peas, she’d raise it in the air, pause, add or remove however many snap peas were necessary—one-by-one, making a theatrical show of it—and then let them race to the scale in the center of the citrus section to weigh the bag and see if she was right. She was always right. On Clara’s ninth birthday she had a sleepover party, and though Merv the Magician had been hired to enchant her guests, The Human Scale was a much bigger hit with the kids, who giggled with glee when Libby lifted them up and correctly guessed each and every one of their weights.
Clara recognized that old, focused gleam in her mother’s big, chocolate brown eyes and, knowing exactly what was coming next, slowly started inching away from her. “No …” she warned, staving Libby off with both hands.“I just got home. I’m in no mood for games.”
Tucking her chin-length, black-and-white-streaked hair behind her ear, Libby took a small step toward her daughter.
“Seriously … I’m not joking,” pleaded Clara.
Libby took another determined step forward.
“I said don’t!”
Suddenly, Clara darted off toward Leo.
She had intended to use her brother’s sturdy, six-foot-two-inch frame as a shield, but her agile mother, having broken into a full gallop, was too close on her heels for her to reach her destination, forcing her to twirl around and hurry in the opposite direction.
“Stop running! The floor was just waxed! You’ll fall, dammit!” Libby chased Clara around the elegant foyer.
“And you wonder why I had to build up the energy to come inside?!” Clara huffed to Leo.
“I said stop it this instant! Do you hear me?!” Libby’s arms were extended straight out in front of her.
“Help!”Clara beseeched her brother, nearly tripping over a pair of Libby’s snow boots.
As Clara bent forward, with arms flailing, to catch her balance, The Human Scale seized the moment with a quick lunge, grabbing her around the waist and swooping her up off the ground, such that they were facing each other with their stomachs touching. There were several inches of air between Clara’s dangling toes and the hardwood floor, which, now that it had been pointed out to her, did look particularly shiny.
“Yep. Just like I thought,” Libby panted, trying to catch her breath. “One hundred and fifteen pounds.”
Leo shook his head back and forth, amazed. “You truly belong inside a big, orange tent beside a Bearded Lady or Frog-Boy,” he marveled. “Unbelievable …”
Gently returning Clara to the ground, Libby looked deep into her daughter’s vacant eyes with an almost palpable intensity and smiled sadly. Though Leo was standing within arm’s reach, in that brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Clara felt as if no one, or nothing else, in this whole wide world existed other than the two of them, and somehow, her mother was able to see right through her and feel her agony.
Then, without breaking her powerful gaze, Libby placed her hand on Clara’s cheek in the same, tender manner that she used to when Clara was a little girl with a boo-boo and needed to be comforted.
“You have no idea how much I love you,” Libby whispered, quickly wiping away a single tear.