ow can you possibly think of food at a time like this?” Emily asked Sara, her younger sister, as the older girl sat on top of her baby blue Samsonite, hoping the extra weight would make it easier to close. She had surprise presents for Uncle Alex and Aunt Kate inside that she didn't want Sara or her parents to see.
At twelve, Sara was fifty pounds heavier than Emily, who was already fifteen. Emily wished her sister wouldn't focus on food so much.
“Mommy says I'm healthy because I eat well. Daddy, too. So there.” Sara struggled to push herself out of the child-sized rocking chair she'd had since she was three. She stood with the small chair still attached to her burgeoning hips.
“Here.” Emily closed the locks on the luggage. “Let me help.” In one swift motion, Emily yanked the rocking chair from Sara's growing bottom.
“Ouch!” Sara yelled.
“You're way too big for that chair. You need an adult-sized chair now,” Emily explained.
“No, I don't. You're just jealous.” Sara smirked as she rubbed her hands up and down her backside.
Emily rolled her eyes and placed her luggage in the hall. “I can't imagine why you would say that. Listen, we need to get a move on. Mom and Dad said to be ready by eight. It's almost nine o'clock,” Emily urged.
“Mommy packed my things last night; besides, I'm not going anywhere until I've had my breakfast. So there!” Sara stuck her tongue out at Emily. She lumbered her expanding bulk across the room, stopping in the doorway. “And I don't care what time it is.”
“Brat!” Emily shouted to her sister's retreating back. Soon Sara would be the size of a house if something wasn't done about her weight. She'd try and talk to her once they were at Uncle Alex's. Sara didn't seem to act as rotten when they visited their aunt and uncle. Emily was really looking forward to this visit. She'd always felt extremely close to Uncle Alex, plus he had all those wonderful golden retrievers. At this stage in her life, she figured, this was about as close to heaven as she could get.
Emily heard the electric garage door open, reminding her it was time to leave for Asheville. She grabbed her diary, which she'd caught Sara snooping in the other day. She stuffed it in the bottom of her book bag for safekeeping. She glanced around her room one last time, just to make sure she wasn't leaving anything important behind, then closed her door and headed downstairs.
She couldn't wait to leave what she privately referred to as the “ice palace.” Her mother was so finicky, always afraid a speck of dust would ruin the ridiculous white furniture throughout their house. Aunt Kate's house was so much more relaxing. They didn't even care if the dogs jumped all over the furniture. Aunt Kate would never have white furniture either. Hers was worn and soft, and so what if there was an occasional mass of dog hair? Emily liked the casual life and loved all the animals roaming in and out of the house. Emily figured her mother would have heart failure if an animal of any kind entered their house.
Emily walked into the kitchen just in time to see Sara seated at the breakfast bar with egg yolk smeared across her fat face. Emily grabbed a paper towel, dampened it, and gave it to Sara. “Wipe your face. It's time to leave. If we don't get on the road, we'll end up spending the night in one of those twenty-dollar hotels with the scratchy sheets that you hate.”
Sara snatched the paper towel from Emily and halfheartedly wiped it across her mouth. “I hope you're satisfied!” Sara tossed the wet paper towel on the kitchen floor.
“C'mon, Sara, don't be such a pig. Let's go. Dad's waiting in the car.” Emily picked up the paper towel and tossed it in the garbage can under the sink. “They're waiting, Sara,” Emily said, enunciating each word slowly.
“Mommy isn't in the car yet,” Sara retorted. Emily rolled her eyes. “Yes, but she's almost ready. I just heard the door slam.” Her mother always hated the fact that they drove to North Carolina instead of flying. If anything cramped her style in the slightest, her mother always let those around her know it. Door slamming had become quite popular the past year.
Reluctantly, Sara shoved away from the table and followed Emily out the garage door.
Emily tucked her luggage in between Sara's in the back of the Explorer. She climbed into the backseat and took a paperback novel from her book bag. She hoped reading would prevent Sara from aggravating her with all kinds of questions and stupid comments. She loved her little sister, but sometimes she wished her parents would exercise a bit more control over her behavior. She was beyond spoiled and had no real friends at school, so most of her free time at home was spent tormenting Emily with dumb questions and dopey comments.
Emily winced as she heard the front door slam. Her mother must be ready to leave. She didn't dare look away from her book. When her mother was in one of her moods, Emily knew from experience that it was best to remain quiet. Sara was sure to provide her mother with plenty of distraction.
Wearing white slacks and a lime green silk blouse, Debbie Winter appeared to be dressed for one of her charity luncheons, certainly not a lengthy automobile trip. Emily observed her mother sliding onto the front seat. Her short brown hair was shellacked to her head and she was wearing too much eyeliner. Her eyelashes were so thickly coated with mascara that she looked like a goblin of sorts.
Why can't she be more like Aunt Kate?
Emily could almost guarantee Aunt Kate wouldn't wear white slacks and a silk blouse to go on a road trip. Most likely, she'd have on jeans and a comfortable T-shirt. She certainly wouldn't have bothered with all the makeup and hair spray. Emily just shook her head and immersed herself in her novel.
“Is everyone all set to go?” Don Winter asked as he shifted into drive.
“I guess we'd better be set, you're certainly not waiting around if we're not.” Sarcasm spewed from Debbie's pink-glossed mouth.
At that precise moment Don Winter's jaw clenched and his steel gray eyes blazed with fire. He drew in a deep breath, then released it through his nose. “Then let me repeat myself. Are we all set for the drive to Asheville?” He peered over his shoulder at Emily and Sara in the backseat. When there was no response, he put the Explorer in gear. “I guess this means we're ready.” Without another word Don Winter drove slowly through Quail Lake, the exquisite gated community in Naples. They passed the state-of-the-art fitness center, a ballroom that no one seemed to use, or even wanted to, for that matter, the spa and massage center. They even had a room exclusively for birthday parties. A Tuscan-style fountain held center stage next to the exit gates. A guardhouse that looked like a small mansion lodged two elderly men in uniforms; both seemed about as excited to be at their jobs as a ballerina in a football stadium. Don waved to the men when they stopped at the gate. A kaleidoscope of flowers decorated the road into the gated community. Yellow hibiscus and red geraniums dotted the edge of the concrete walkways. Purple, red, and yellow bougainvillea vines were in full bloom. In a few short weeks the gardeners would be removing the dead leaves, and another plant or bush would dominate the landscape. Quail Lake homes were selling for millions of dollars. Don wanted to scale down to something smaller when the girls went to college. If he could make a hefty profit from the sale, then more power to him. Debbie refused to discuss selling their home. She'd said this was her home, and there wouldn't be any more talk of selling. He'd acquiesced for the moment, but knew the decision was only temporary.
Two months ago Don had had a cell phone installed in the Explorer. Not being used to hearing a phone ringing in the car, he almost swerved into oncoming traffic as he pulled onto Highway 41.
“I thought you'd be rolling up the mountain by now. What's up?” Alex Rocket's cheerful voice sounded as though he were in the car with them. Modern technology still amazed him.
“Hey, you big dope. I'm just now getting on the road. We got a late start.” Don glanced at Debbie picking at some imaginary speck on her slacks.
“Big dope, huh? I'm not the one who's late.” Alex's zany laughter could be heard over the wires.
“Three women. It takes time.”
“I bet it does. I called to see if I could give Emily a surprise. Ginger just had another litter, I thought she might want one. What do you say? I wouldn't want to give her a puppy without your permission.”
Don quickly scrutinized Debbie's white slacks. She couldn't deal with a human hair in her perfectly decorated home, let alone dog hairs all over the house. “I would love to say yes, but Deb isn't very fond of animals. The hair and all. I'm sorry.” Don wouldn't have minded a pet, but Debbie would rather die than entertain the thought of one.
Don heard Alex's sigh over the phone. “No problem. I just know how much Emily loves dogs.”
“Maybe when she's on her own she can take a few dogs off your hands. Right now she's pretty involved with school and sports. She made the girls' basketball team again. You should see her. Reminds me of you, Rocket Man, when we were in high school.”
“I haven't been called that in ages,” Alex said wistfully. “Tell Em I'll expect a game of one-on-one while she's here.”
Don smiled. “You can count on it. If the traffic isn't too bad and the girls are up for the ride, we should be there late tonight, if not, midmorning tomorrow.”
“Either way, we'll be here waiting. Kate can't wait to see the girls.”
“They're excited, too. See you soon, old man.” Don pressed the End button and placed the phone back in its stand.
“Alex and Kate are really anxious to see the girls,” Don said.
Debbie looked at her husband of seventeen years. Suddenly, she couldn't remember what had attracted her to him in the first place. “Kate's barren. She warms up to any kid.”
“That's a mean thing to say. She loves the girls and you know she does,” Don replied, an edge to his voice.
Debbie snickered. “I didn't say that she didn't like the girls. I simply stated a fact. The woman is barren. She uses the girls as substitute children.”
“That's not true, Mom,” Emily said.
“As if you would know. Wait till you have children of your own before you voice an opinion on something you have no clue about. You're just like your father. You think you know something about everything.”
“Debbie, that's uncalled for.” She'd been in a bad mood for days. Don was sick of her. “Stop taking whatever's crawled up your ass out on Emily.”
Emily wanted to say more in defense of Aunt Kate, but an argument with her mother was the last thing she needed at the moment. She resumed reading her novel.
“I'm not taking anything out on Emily. I'm just going along for the ride, Don. We could've flown to Asheville, but as usual, you have to control whatever we do. I'm surprised you didn't tell me what to wear.” Debbie rolled her eyes and picked at her perfectly manicured oval nails.
“Let's not start, okay? We've got a long ride ahead of us, and I'd like to drive in peace.”
“If you'd fly, we wouldn't have to suffer through this long, boring ride,” Debbie shot back.
“I like to drive. It relaxes me. You know that.”
“Yes, I do. I always do whatever you want, and I'm getting sick and tired of it. Don wants this, Don wants that. What about what Debbie wants? When is that going to matter? Or is it?”
Don floored the gas, passing a semi on I-75 at breakneck speed. He now wished he'd sent Debbie ahead on a plane. She'd spend the next ten hours bitching and complaining. He was tired of it already and they'd been on the road barely an hour.
“Well?” Debbie persisted.
Shoulders tense with both hands in a death grip on the steering wheel, Don had a vision of wrapping his hands around his wife's neck, squeezing until she drew her last breath. God, this was a marriage? Lately the word
kept creeping into his mind, but each time he thought about it, he'd remember all of his hard work and just how much he had to lose. No, he'd put up with her crap a while longer.
With both girls in the backseat, Don mentally calmed himself. He didn't want them to be as miserable as he was right now.
“For once let's just enjoy being together. Before long the girls will be away at college. There won't be any more family vacations. Plus, just think of all the free time you're going to have while the girls stay with Alex and Kate. Two weeks in the Caribbean seems like a fair trade to me.” Don knew he was using their cruise as a means to bribe Debbie, but if that's what it took to keep her trap shut for the remainder of the trip, then fine. Once they were aboard the cruise ship that sailed out of Cape Canaveral, she could kiss his merry old ass. He'd gamble and drink. If he were lucky, hell, he might even pick up a woman who was willing to enjoy him as a man and keep her thoughts and opinions to herself. If only.