Inside the house, Anna stood at the ironing board, spray starching her husband’s crisp white dress shirt.
Laundry surrounded her. It was piled on the floor and waiting to go into the washing machine, stacked on the folding table ready for dresser drawers, wrinkled in baskets next in line for the iron.
Items of summer were scattered about the mudroom; Logan’s water wings and flip-flops on the floor by the back door, sunhats and caps hung from the hooks mounted above the sink, a dark yellow tube of sunscreen, floats toys, and a pair of cymbals that Allie had brought home from band the last day of school.
And then Anna spied a stubborn dark orange-red stain embedded into near the second button of the shirt’s cotton fabric.
Her stomach dropped. Not again!
“Kev!” she yelled so that he could hear her in the master bedroom where he was packing to go out on the road again. A late season tornado had wiped out a big swatch of a small Oklahoma town. He would be processing insurance claims for weeks.
“Yeah?” he yelled back.
She ran a finger over the stain. “Have you been eating Toad’s chili again?”
Kevin mumbled something she couldn’t hear.
Scowling, she shook her head. She understood that her husband was a red-blooded, chest-thumping carnivorous male, and naturally resistant to the plant-based meal plan she struggled to keep him on.
Dammit, they’d talked about this after his last physical when his cholesterol count came back over two-fifty. Toad’s Diner, the place that served triple-meat chili and chicken-fried everything, was off his diet permanently. She wanted to keep him around for a long, long time. She loved her sexy, noncompliant beast.
Kevin wandered into the mudroom looking slightly shame-faced, holding a patent leather loafer in one hand and shoe polish in the other. Tall, blond, broad-shouldered, with Nordic heritage, he dominated any room he entered.
Her heart gave a romantic lurch. Even after twelve years of marriage and two kids, he could still quicken her pulse. At the same time, she felt a twinge of loneliness, missing him already. God, she wished he had a job where he didn’t have to travel so much, but alas, it was the nature of his business. He followed the catastrophes.
Her husband believed in looking his best at disaster scenes. The other adjusters ribbed him for being a clothes horse, but Kevin felt that in times of crisis, people craved security and certainty. Wearing dress clothes and polished shoes was a small price to pay to instill confidence in his clients.
Happily, Anna ironed his shirts when she could simply have sent them to the dry cleaner. She enjoyed doing little things for him to show her love, plus it saved money when their budget was beyond tight.
“The stain is forever.” She sigh and tossed the shirt to the floor. “I’ll turn it into a cleaning rag. But could you do me a favor, big guy and go easy on Toad’s? If you want chili, I can make some with tofu and kidney beans.”
He rolled his eyes, stuck out his tongue, made a “yuck” face and held up three fingers in a boy scout salute. “No more Toad’s. I promise.”
“You were never a boy scout and I don’t trust you to stay away from chili.” She shook her head. “So, I’m willing to compromise.”
He made happy grunting caveman noises and wriggled his eyebrows comically.
“Stay out of Toad’s and I’ll make turkey chili with extra chili powder and siracha to pump up the flavor. Deal?”
Kevin brightened. “Deal.”
Laughing, she shook a finger at him. “Don’t think this means regular meat munching.”
“Unless by meat—”
“Behave.” She blushed.
“Crack that whip. It’s part of my fantasies.”
“I’m serious, Kevin.”
Grinning, he leaned in for a kiss.
She caught the scent of starch, shoe polish and his basil shaving soap. The smell of her man getting ready for work.
“You know I love it when you get bossy.” He winked. “Hey, you wanna quickie?”
“Not bossy,” she corrected, sidestepping the hand he tried to slide around her waist and tapping his chest with her index finger. “Assertive. Your health is important to me, Viking.”
He dropped his hand and looked mildly disappointed. “Says the woman who never takes a spare second for herself. Seriously, ask your mom or mine to sit for the kids while you get a massage.”
Anna shrugged. “Who has the time?”
“Make the time.” He picked his shirt up off the floor. “Don’t worry about the stain. My tie will cover it. One less chore off your plate.”
She was about to protest, but her cell phone dinged with a text message.
Anna switched off the iron, wishing Kevin wouldn’t wear the shirt, stain and all, but she was too pressed for time to iron another one. Sometimes, she had to let things go. Not that she was happy about it.
Tugging the phone from the back pocket of her denim shorts, she read the text.
Mom: Don’t forget our hair appointment at 10.
As if she’d ever forgotten an appointment with her mother. One punch on the screen with her thumb: K.
Another text came through.
This one was a group text from Gia, her sister-in-law. Gia was heading up the church bake sale and Anna had promised to make specialty cupcakes for the vacation bible school fundraiser, but she hadn’t even started them yet.
Gia: Reminder. All baked goods should be at the rectory no later than 5 p.m. tonight. Our volunteers need time to arrange and price the items. Sale starts promptly at 8 tomorrow morning. Let me know ASAP if you can’t meet the deadline.
Cringing, Anna checked the time.
It was almost nine now. She had to get Kevin out the door, usher the kids to the car and drop them off at her mother-in-law’s Veronica house, pick up mom, hit the salon at ten to spend three hours in the chair for highlights and a cut, grab a late lunch with mom. Pick up the kids.
Hmm, that put her getting home around two-thirty. Cutting it close, but she’d have just enough time to whip up some cupcakes, let them cool and frost them by five. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Or you could just swing by your bakery and pick up three dozen.
As tempting as that was, she’d promised specialty cupcakes and that’s what she’d deliver.
“I’m gonna finish packing.” Kev kissed the top of her head, picked up his shoe and the polish and sauntered down the hall.
She craned her neck, watching him walk away. Heavens, but the man still had a gorgeous ass, even eighteen years after he’d played running back for the Moonglow Dragons. Anna hugged herself. She was lucky, and she knew it. So damn lucky. Even if Kevin was on the road more than he was home, they had a strong marriage and she’d do everything in her power to keep it that way.
Family first. Always.
Another text came through.
Sighing, Anna checked her phone again.
Moonglow Hospital Robo-text: As someone in our database with a rare blood type, we urge you to donate to our semi-annual blood drive. You are needed! The mobile van will set up at Moonglow Community College from 8 a.m. 5 p.m. Saturday June 12th. Text STOP to unsubscribe.
The magical word that galvanized Anna. She was two pints away from being Moonglow Cove’s top donor. Yes, yes. Give blood. She was on it and saved the date into her calendar.
Okay now, where was she? Oh yes, get the kids loaded up and…
A fourth text. Really? The morning was starting off with a bang.
This text from her bank telling her they had exactly $213.87 in their checking account. How had it gotten that low?
She bit her bottom lip, recalled a few extra expenses; the clogged bathroom drain requiring a plumber, the run to the minor emergency clinic with Logan that insurance hadn’t yet reimbursed, and the night out at Chez Jacques to celebrate Kevin’s thirty-sixth birthday. It was pricy, they shouldn’t have done it, but as Kevin said, “Sometimes you just have to live large.”
Shit. She would have to juggle some things. Maybe get a cash advance on her credit card. Not bright, Anna, not bright.
Maybe not, but Kevin didn’t get a check for another week and she’d invested last month’s bakery profits in new signage. Temporary cash flow problems. That’s all this was. True enough but juggling bills to rob from Peter in order to Paul, was happening more and more often. Time for a serious budget adjustment.
You could skip the hair appointment.
She fingered her overgrown mop of unruly red hair, looped a strand around her finger and stared at the split ends. Mom was looking forward to their salon time together. Maybe she could barter with her stylist. Haircut in exchange for a month worth of free baked goods? Her stylish did love her Italian bread with olives and sundried tomatoes.
Another text. Heavens did someone mix up her phone number with Grand Central Station?
Another group text this one from the Harmonious Housewives: Music practice cancelled tonight. Jeannie’s son broke his arm falling off the Jungle Gym and Amber’s sister went into labor.
Anna sent a sad face emoji but thanked heaven that something on her schedule had gotten postponed. She adored her weekly amateur musical group and they were playing in the Moonglow Music Festival in the Park on Friday evening, so they really needed the rehearsal, but honestly who cared if they sucked buckets? It was a free show and they just wanted to have fun.
For the fifth time, she put her phone down and as she did, it played the ring tone of her favorite song, “Let it Go” from the Frozen soundtrack. Right now, she didn’t really want to hear it. Especially when she saw the call was from Moonglow Cove Memory Care Center.
Don’t answer, she told herself. They could leave voice mail. Yeah that sounded good, but then the guilt-inducing angel on her shoulder whispered, what if it’s important?
“Babe,” Kevin called from their bedroom. “Have you seen my…” the rest came out as a garbled mufflestuffisit.
“Hello?” she answered.
She recognized the voice of the director of the memory care facility, Myra Marts, and tried not to sound put upon. “Good morning, Myra.”
“I wish it was.”
Uh-oh. “What’s up?” she asked, her voice coming out chirpy as a bluebird on Adderall. Dial it down.
“I’m afraid Winnie’s gone missing again.”
Anna rubbed her temple with her free hand. Winnie Newton was the midwife who’d delivered her, and the elderly woman had been exceptionally close to Anna’s dad, Heathcliff. Because her parents had had her so late in life, Anna had never known her grandparents and Winnie had filled their shoes, stepping in as a surrogate grandmother. When she was young, Winnie had been a substantial presence in her life.
Out of a sense of loyalty and sheer kindness, her father had been the one to look after Winnie when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Because Winnie’s son Paul had been her dad’s best friend, he felt obligated. Although, Anna couldn’t help thinking the reason ran deeper than that. Her father had lost both of his parents when he was young, and Winnie had lost her husband and son too soon. Mutual sorrow could cement a relationship.
Plus, Winnie had no one else to look after her. But since her dad passed away last year, Anna had inherited Winnie’s medical power of attorney.
“I don’t expect you to do anything,” Myra said. “We’re out searching, and we called the police. I just wanted you to know. I’m sure we’ll find her soon.”
“Thank you,” Anna said, forcing herself to take a deep breath.
Despite all the safety and security precautions they took at the facility, she understood that patients did escape from time to time. Myra did her best to create a safe and nurturing environment, but nothing was failproof. Especially with Winnie, who’d turned out to have Houdini flair whenever she got agitated.
“Please text me when you find her,” she told Myra.
Anna ended the call and stared at the screen, daring the phone to interrupt her again. Problems were stacking up like Jenga blocks, one wrong move and the “to-do” tower would tumble in on her.
Dear Lord, she prayed jokingly, please send me a clone. What I wouldn’t give for a clone.
She took another deep breath and slowly let it out through her teeth. She’d find a way to manage everything. She always did. Where there was a will there was a way. Right?
“Mommy, mommmmmmy!” Logan came tearing into the mudroom tears running down his face.
“What is it, honey?” Anna crouched and opened her arms wide. “What’s happened?”
Her three-year-old flew into her embrace. “Al-Allie!”
He sobbed, burying his face against her shoulder. On his heels, her ten-year-old daughter stormed into view. She wore a blue T-shirt with horses printed into the material, denim shorts, her curly read hair pulled into a ponytail with a scrunchy.
“He came into my room Mom and he knocked my phone off the dresser. Look!” Allie flashed her phone in front of Anna’s face. “He cracked the screen!”
There was indeed a hairline crack. Very tiny, but there.
“It was an assident,” Logan wailed.
“I want a new phone. I need a new phone. He owes me a new phone!” Allie flailed dramatically.
“Allie, lower your voice.” Anna got to her feet and leveled a calming gaze at her daughter. “We can discuss this without yelling.”
Logan clasped his arms around her thigh and shot his sister the side-eye.
Allie glowered. “Phone! Cracked! Brat!”
“Shh. You’re upsetting your brother.”
“You always take his side.”
“He’s three and he didn’t mean to crack your phone. You’re lucky you even have a phone. Many kids your age don’t. Suck it up, buttercup.”
The cell phone was a cost they could have waited a few years on. Allie had her own phone simply Kevin adored gadgets and had buried Anna with research and articles on why it was good for children to have their own phones. Anna had been against it she’d wanted to wait until Allie was thirteen.
Kevin won when he said, “The GPS tracker will let you know where she is every moment of every day.”
Begrudgingly, she’d agreed to the phone for Allie’s tenth birthday. There were plenty of days, when she couldn’t pry Allie from her phone screen that she regretted the decision.
Allie scowled, folded her arms over her chest and chuffed out her breath. “He’s your favorite. It’s not fair, not fair, not fair.”
From her pocket, Anna’s cell phone ding and then rang.
Allie stormed down the hall.
Kevin called, “What is going on?”
Did she have to solve everything? Fix everyone? Yep, you’re the mom. Comes with the job description.
Well, she refused to feel sorry for herself. Enough of this nonsense. She had to break the mood and turn the ship around, or the entire day would be a wash.
Hmmm, how to get their attention, and snap her kids out of this mindset? She searched the laundry room and her gaze fell on the cymbals.
Prying Logan from her leg, she grabbed for the cymbals and clashed them together. Sang at the top of her lungs, “Seventy-six trombones led the big parade!”
Allie poked her head back into the mudroom. “Mom, what are you doing?”
“Line up!” Anna hollered. “We’re going to march this out.”
“Mom!” Allie rolled her eyes hard.
Anna clashed the cymbals.
Allie lined up behind Logan who was already following her as Anna marched down the hallway.
“Knees high!” she called and started in on the lyrics again. “Seventy-six trombones!”
They proceeded past the master bedroom headed to the kitchen. The kids falling in step with her. Anna clashing the cymbals with resounded emphasis. Kevin came out of the bedroom to join them, making a silly drum major face and waving a golf putter like it was a baton. He got in front of Anna to lead the band.
Typical. Let her get the party started and Kev showed up to take over as if it had been his idea all along. But Anna didn’t care. She’d shifted the mood. They were laughing and singing and marching.
Score one for mom.
The doorbell rang
Logan left formation, ran for the door and before Anna could stop him, flung it wide open.
Anna halted, eyes on her son.
“Mom?” A confused expression crossed Logan’s little face as he looked at the visitor and then at Anna and repeated in a soft, befuddled whisper, “Mommy?”
She shifted her gaze from her son to the thin, spiky-haired, redheaded woman standing on her front porch holding a thick leather dog collar in her hand and appearing as if she’d just scaled Mount Everest to get it.
A complete stranger who looked exactly like her.
Anna’s mouth dropped open and she blinked hard, trying to parse what she was seeing. But it was like the time she took calculus in high school. Nothing made sense no matter how hard she tried to understand it.
Her giggly mind said, you prayed. God answered. Here she is. Your clone.
Yeah, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
The cymbals fell from her hands and hit the floor with a jarring clatter. Everyone jumped, including the clone on her doorstep.
Oh wait. Oh hey. Now she’d figured this out. She was still sound asleep and trapped in some kind of bizarre nightmare. That’s why it felt so real.
Soon, she soothed herself, soon enough the alarm would go off and everything would return to normal.
But deep inside, a part of Anna knew that nothing would ever be normal again.
SUBSCRIBE TO LORI WILDE'S NEWSLETTER!