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By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2017 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
Another day done, Polly Peverly thought as she pulled into the driveway of her condominium complex.
She smiled as she exited the car, taking a deep breath. After a stifling summer, it seemed that Mother Nature was deciding to reward them for being good. October in Chicago could be tempermental, with days of sultry heat alternating with driving rain and gloomy, cloudy days that reminded them of the long, cold, dark winter to come.
But today, at least, had been glorious. A few white cumulus clouds slowly drifted across a deep blue sky, and the temperature was hovering in the upper sixties. She didn’t even bother to put on her jacket as she walked across the immaculately landscaped grounds to her own building, choosing to enjoy the feel of the cool fall air on her skin. An eddy of wind passed by, pulling a few yellow and orange leaves from the trees overhead, sending them swirling through the air before depositing them in the nearby pond, where a few geese paddled around lackadaisically.
“Evening, Frank,” she said, smiling at one of her neighbors.
“Evening, Dr. Peverly,” he replied. An older man in his seventies, he and his wife had been fixtures since before Polly had moved in. Dressed in jeans and a disreputable flannel shirt that looked at least ten years old, he reminded her of a chimney sweep from “Mary Poppins,” rather than a successful investment banker. “What’s new?”
“Nothing, which is just the way I like it,” she said with a decisive nod. “Excuse me. I have to get home.”
The man means well, but he’ll talk your ear off. I don’t want to get dragged into another hour-long discussion about what the condo board should do about grills on the balconies or plants on the patios.
She climbed up the stairs to her front door, shouldering it open with a sigh. As she did, two hurtling balls of fur struck her lower legs, caroming off in random directions.
“And hello to you, too,” she said, reaching down to run her fingers along Bonnie’s back. The tabby cat, less than a year old and still long-legged with adolescence, rubbed her cheek against Polly’s hand, purring ecstatically. “I’ve only been gone for nine hours, you know.” Clyde butted his head in, demanding his share of affection, and she ran her hand along his back.
She set her purse on the counter, and shrugged out of her suit jacket, draping it over the back of a chair. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you two actually liked me. But I know you only put up with me because I feed you.”
As if in answer, Bonnie darted over to her food bowl, meowing piteously. “Yes, I know. You’re wasting away to skin and bones. Poor thing. And you do so much here while I’m gone. Sleeping, napping, dozing, licking yourself, and more sleeping.”
Bonnie eyed her suspiciously, and Polly giggled as she emptied a tin of cat food into each of their bowls. The two cats fell to ravenously.
In her pocket, her phone began to ring softly. She fished it out, looked at the screen, and held it to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hello, Polly,” her mother returned. “How are you doing today?”
“I’m okay,” she replied. “No, no, stop it, you rotten little verminoid,” she hissed down at her feet, where Bonnie had apparently decided to sharpen her claws on her new shoes.
“What?” Her mother’s voice was startled.
“Nothing, Mom. Just talking to the cat.”
Alice Peverly chuckled. “Watch out, Polly. Talking to your pets is one of the first signs that you’re starting to go around the bend. You don’t want to end up as the crazy cat-lady, do you?”
“I think I have a ways to go before that happens,” she replied. “What’s up?”
“I’m…” for a moment, her mother’s voice grew tentative. “I’ve met someone.”
“Oh?” She kept her voice carefully noncommittal. Her mother hadn’t been in a serious relationship in years.
“Yes. And I want you and Ronnie to meet him. Could you come over for dinner on Friday night? Maybe around seven?”
She blinked. This was serious. The last time her mother had actually dragged a man home to meet her two children, she had been in junior high, she thought. And Ronnie would have been in elementary school. “Sure, Mom. Do you need me to bring anything? What’s the name of the mystery man?”
She could hear the smile through the phone. “His name is Edgar. Edgar Wagner.”
“What’s he like? What does he do?”
“Nope.” Alice’s voice was firm. “I’m not going to talk about him. I know you, Polly. You’ll start to psychoanalyze him over the phone, and by the time we’re done, you’ll have my head all twisted up in knots.”
“Mom! I will not!”
“Hah. You will so. Remember the family picnic two years ago? You had your cousin Anne convinced that her boyfriend was addicted to porn based on the shape of his skull.”
“Come on, Mom. I was just having some fun with her. He’s a man, isn’t he? That made it a pretty good bet to begin with. Besides, I was hot, tired, bored, and Aunt Betty had made me drink at least three of those terrible mojitos she makes. And Anne was making fun of me for being a ‘shrink,’ as she calls it. I can’t be held responsible for my actions after that.”
“The answer is no, Polly. You can form an opinion of him when you meet him. His daughter, too.”
“Oh? He has kids?”
“Just one. In high school.”
“All right. Is Ronnie coming?”
“If he doesn’t, he’s going to find out he’s not too big to spank.”
Three nights later, she pulled up to the small house she had grown up in, in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago.
Don’t be big. Don’t be important. Be hard to find.
While towns on the western periphery of the suburban sprawl were spreading out like ugly tumors, nothing but strip malls and used-car dealerships as far as the eye could see, Westmont had survived by being small and sane and quiet. Her mother’s house was a perfect example. Set on a small plot of land, it was meticulously groomed and neat as a pin. The yard was in perfect condition, freshly-mowed despite the lateness of the season. The house had been repainted just a year ago, and the shutters that framed the windows glinted a cheery red in the fading light. In the back, she could see the bright colors of the autumn blaze maple that she and Ronnie had climbed in as kids glowing in the last light of the setting sun.
Holding a covered dish in one hand, she knocked on the door with the other.
It quickly opened, a tall figure looming in the doorway like a giant. It raised its hands, its fingers curled like claws. “Rowr!”
“Ronnie, you idiot. Get out of the way and let me in.”
Her younger brother grinned at her and stepped aside. “Nice to see you, too, Polly.”
She sniffed the air, her mouth watering at the enticing smells drifting from the kitchen. “Smothered pork chops?”
“And twice-baked potatoes. And brussel sprouts. And rolls. And apple pie.”