This sneak peek comes from part-way through a chapter during which the novel’s 30-something year old protagonist, Elena, and her whole family (which is comprised of her mother, six other sisters, and some of their husbands and kids) are sitting in the hospital’s waiting room for Pa to come out of aneurysm surgery. Only their seventh sister, movie star Alexandra “Zippy” Wright, is missing, being late to arrive from out of town. Elena is desperate for a distraction from her worried thoughts, so she’s delighted when Jen takes matters into her own hands to liven up the waiting….
“Just as she had since they were little girls together, whispering from the dark confines of their bunk-bed, Jen seemed to possess an uncanny ability to click into Elena’s renegade thoughts, whether or not they were saying anything aloud. Now Elena made a goofy, eye-rolling face at her, and Jen’s half-smile shifted to a full-blown grin.
Her sister was out of uniform for the moment, her shoulder-length, dark hair loose from the usual clipped-up knot that was necessary for police protocol, and both her arms and her jean-clad legs crossed casually as she leaned against the doorjamb. She had long limbs, strong and toned, though Elena knew that even now Jen didn’t consider herself attractive in a physical sense. Too many years of more popular classmates taunting her with names like “Granny Oakley” and “spaghetti legs” had prevented that.
But Jen had grown into those legs eventually. By the time she was out of high school and the eighties were in full swing, braces had straightened her buck teeth and she’d cut her thick hair into a spiky, punk-style, ala Prince and The Revolution. She’d been a force to contend with then, tough as nails (especially to any guy who tried to get a little too cozy with Elena when they’d go out together on college breaks) but still the same funny, irreverent, insecure-on-the-inside Jen that she’d always been.
Elena couldn’t help wondering, sometimes, how Jen might have been different if she’d been gorgeous from birth, the way Zippy had been. Zippy, who’d earned her nickname for the way she wheeled around corners in her baby walker at mock thirty, was (as has already been mentioned) a piece of work. You know how people talk about how funny it is that multiple kids from the same parents, raised in the same household, can turn out so differently? Yeah, well Zippy would have won the award for that one, and not just in personality.
None of the Wright sisters were Quasimodos or anything in the looks department, but compared to Zippy…well there really was no comparison. She was the tallest girl in the family by a half-inch (which put her at about 5’ 10”), and her slender-but-curved-in-all-the-right-places shape meant she could wear any style. And while she put a fair amount of time into “keeping up” her appearance, she really didn’t need to. Even in her natural state she looked incredible.
Yes, all the best of the family’s beauty genes seemed to have concentrated in her. Zippy had had one pimple at the onset of puberty, but because of the trauma that single blemish had unleashed, everyone joked that none other had ever dared emerge from her perfect skin again.
If the Ivory-girl complexion, knockout body, and perfect, silky hair weren’t enough, Zippy had also been blessed with a straight nose, full lips, and violet-blue eyes. Not hazel, or brown, or even regular blue. Oh, no – those would be too mundane for Zippy. Hers were true, gorgeous purple-y blue like Elizabeth Taylor’s.
People sometimes thought she had tinted contacts or that she’d had plastic surgery to look like she did. But it was all natural. And it was annoying as all get out when you were related to that kind of perfection, especially when her personality was such that she saw no need to be especially gracious about it with anyone, including the members of her own family.
Jen’s movement as she pushed away from the doorjamb brought Elena back to the here and now. Her sister had been leaning in the doorway closer to the other family who was sharing the waiting room, and it took her a few extra seconds to make her way back toward Ma and the rest of the extended Wright family. Elena’s waited with baited breath, her senses leaping to full alert; from the look on her sister’s face, Jen had clearly decided it was time to shake things up a little around here, and she could be unpredictable in how she chose to accomplish that.
Elena didn’t have to wait too long to find out.
“So,” Jen drawled, once she’d walked up and swept her gaze around their gathered family. She took an obvious glance at her watch, cocked her eyebrows and then slid into the open chair near Elena, “Where the hell is Zippy?”
Dead silence and Ma’s disapproving look at her use of a curse-word greeted her question.
“En route, I’d guess.”
It was Anne who had spoken, taking charge and trying to keep things on an even keel like she always did as the oldest sister. “Her train was due in around nine, and she was supposed to rent a car at the station and drive here.”
“She’s taking the train and renting a car? What happened to her limo…or her private helicopter? I figured she’d be touching down on the hospital’s landing pad any minute.” Jen’s tone was dry, but her smile took the sting out of her comment. It earned her a chuckle from Kat and Patricia, and a smothered grin from Elena. Melanie and Lisa were trying to stay out of it for the most part, but their kids and husbands were beginning to loosen up and relax a little in response to Jen’s kidding around.
Jen wasn’t being mean or anything. Even though she kept in touch other ways, Zippy had only been home a dozen times or so in the past two decades – the last time almost two full years ago. Whenever she arrived, it was usually with an effort at a big splash. She’d seemed disappointed that the locals’ reactions to sightings of her had settled down considerably the past few times, with no crowds gathering any more, and so she’d tried all different ways of regaining their attention.
The last time she’d come home, Jen had tried to (gently) remind her, that the public was a fickle beast. They clamored for the latest, hot thing on the screen, not for the tried and true. Especially when it came to women (unless you were Meryl Streep, Dame Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, or Emma Thompson, but three of them were Brits anyway, and as for Meryl – well, she was in a category all by herself). Tinseltown was notorious for gobbling up and spitting out its share of starlets, and she should be proud that 20 years later, she still worked regularly.
It hadn’t helped.
Zippy had pursed her lips, made a sharp comment, and clicked off in her high heels to make a call to her agent. She’d flown out two days later with the same kind of glint in her eyes that she’d had the very first time she’d set off for California a few months after high school graduation.
Still, over the years, the family wondered if she’d taken the adage absence makes the heart grow fonder a little too seriously, although she periodically called, texted, or sent expensive gifts. In general, her focus seemed to be on clinging to the limelight at all costs. That had included when and how she came home.
The dark side of it all was that fame had infringed on her personal happiness; she’d never managed to stay in one place or maintain her privacy long enough to cultivate any lasting romantic relationship. All her relationships seemed to suffer under the strain of her career. It felt to her family like she’d forgotten that though the rest of the world saw her as Alexandra Wright, movie star, the people who had loved her all her life still thought of her as ‘Zippy’ first, and they missed her.
Ma hadn’t said anything yet in response to Jen’s comment about Zippy’s mode of arrival, only shaking her head at her. Elena knew she wouldn’t scold unless Jen crossed the line, which she rarely did. She just pushed it a little for the sake of everyone’s amusement.
Anne hadn’t reacted much either by this point (another tactic she’d learned years ago as a way of managing any rebellious sisters in her charge). She kept her gaze level and shrugged. “All I know is that she texted last night, saying she was taking the train. Maybe it was late.”
“Or maybe she was late getting to it.” One of Jen’s eyebrow’s arched again. “Zip’s never been what anyone would call an early riser.”
No one could argue with that, even Anne. The room went quiet again, the tension that had built up waiting for word on Pa’s surgery still not entirely broken. But Jen wasn’t done yet in her efforts toward achieving that.
Giving an exaggerated sigh, her sister leaned back in her chair. “Well, I’ll bet that even without a limo or a plane, Zip is going to make a grand entrance today. She’s just setting the stage by being fashionably late.” Patting her own pockets as if looking for something, she mumbled, “And…I seem to be fresh out.” Then she lifted her gaze to her “audience” with the kind of wide-eyed innocence worthy of an Academy Award. “Anyone have a camera, so we can capture the moment?”
That did it.
Ma gave Jen a long-suffering look while the rest of the family snickered. Even Melanie, Lisa, and Anne got caught up in her humor, and the last of the accumulated tension deflated like a cartoon balloon stuck with a pin. Giving a little shrug now herself, Jen leaned her forearms on her knees and looked impishly at Ma. “What?”
“Really, Jennifer,” Ma fussed at her.
“I’m just trying to lighten things up a little until Zippy gets here to take over the theatrics.” She gave Elena a half-smile, making the unspoken connection for support. “I mean, geez, we’re all sitting around here like we’re expecting the worst – and everyone knows that Zippy and flashbulbs have always been a perfect combination.”
Elena couldn’t help but snort a laugh at that.
“Elena Elizabeth, your sister doesn’t need any encouragement.”
Jen’s grin flashed in full again, pulling Ma’s attention back. “It’s the truth. If Zip was here, I’d tell her myself.”
There was a half-beat of silence – the calm before the storm, Elena couldn’t help thinking – and then the atmosphere seemed to pull into itself, an electric undercurrent shivering to life as a voice came, clear as a bell, from outside, in the corridor.
“Tell me what?”
With a waft of air scented by expensive perfume, Alexandra Wallis “Zippy” Wright clicked into the waiting room on her matte leather, high-heeled boots. As she walked in she pulled off a stylish, slouchy hat, releasing her trademark auburn hair so that it fell over her shoulders like silk. Her whole entrance looked like something you’d see on a television commercial, minus the slow-motion camera-work and background music. She managed to look at once casually elegant, bored, and maybe just a slight bit worried, if you took into account the stiff set of her (still plump-lipped) mouth and (sag-free) jaw.
Elena tried not to roll her eyes.
Zippy was wearing a pair of jeans that must have cost at least four hundred dollars, and a cream-colored, cashmere turtleneck worth three times that, with what was likely an even more expensive soft-as-butter cinnamon-hued leather jacket belted expertly over it. No one had a right to look that good one month shy of forty years old.
None of them could see her famous violet-blue eyes, though. The sunglasses that she seemed to wear everywhere shaded them – a habit from her years of being hounded by paparazzi.
“I was just reiterating how much the camera loves you, sis,” Jen clipped, giving her a wave as Zippy made her way to Ma.
Elena frowned. Zippy seemed distracted. It had never been like her not to deliver a razor sharp comeback to one of Jen’s teasing remarks. The leather and perfume scents surrounding her blended in an artful mix as she leaned over to kiss Ma on the cheek while everyone else was in the process of getting up to offer their hug and greeting. “Sorry I’m late. I missed the first train.”
When she faced Elena for their greeting, Elena murmured a welcome and hugged her, feeling the same push and pull of emotions as always. She used to wonder if it would ever get easier, but it hadn’t, really. It had changed in some ways with time and the distance Zippy’s fame had wrought between them, but it still always felt like there was an undercurrent of potential misunderstanding brewing, just waiting to blow up.
“It’s strange to see you all by yourself – where’s the usual entourage?” Jen asked with another grin, still trying to get a rise out of her when it was her turn to embrace her sister.
Zippy made a huffing sound. “None of the ingrates would come.” She looked toward Ma. “How’s Pa?”
As she asked that, she finally pulled off her shades. Elena was startled at how tired her eyes looked, with shadows under them and no trace of artfully-applied liner or mascara. This wasn’t like Zippy. Not at all.
“We haven’t had any updates yet.” Ma motioned for Zip to sit next to her on the long pleather couch.
“It’s probably too soon to expect anything, though. They didn’t take him into surgery until around 10:30,” Lisa said, leaning forward a little as her husband, Mike, absently rubbed the spot between her shoulders.
Zippy looked confused. “I thought he was scheduled at 9:00?”
“A hold-up with the patient ahead of him,” Kat answered. Then she gave a rueful smile. “And you know Pa…he likes to be on time, so the delay drove him crazy. The fact that he’d been fasting since suppertime last night didn’t help his mood, either. We could have used one of your stories or a little performance or something to keep him distracted, Zip.”
It might have been her imagination working overtime, but Elena could have sworn that Zippy’s mouth tightened a little more at that. She didn’t have a chance to say anything in response, though. At that moment, there was the sound of another person approaching from the hallway, and then a woman wearing green surgical scrubs appeared.
Elena craned her neck and saw that a similarly-garbed man lingered just behind her, standing in the hallway. Jen also twisted around to look, and the atmosphere in the waiting room crackled again as everyone in the family seemed to lean forward a little, recognizing that this might just be the update they’d all been looking for.
“The Joseph Horton family?” the woman called out.
Everyone on Elena’s side of the room seemed to exhale together in disappointment, even as the half-dozen or so people sitting closer to the door lurched to their feet. A woman who was probably younger than Ma by about a decade, led the way out into the hall and the conference with the medical people (doctors? nurses?) followed by a man who appeared to be related to her. By the looks of him, he was probably her son.
It wasn’t more than ten seconds later that the muted, panicked sounds of the woman’s voice and the raised cadences of questions interspersed with lower-pitched replies, drifted in from the hallway. Then there was a sharp cry. Several of the others who were still in the waiting room rushed forward and out the door, even as the man came back in with his mother, who leaned heavily on him with her hand pressed to her lips, choking back sobs and closing her eyes as she shook her head.
From the now-filled hallway a jumble of sounds ensued as the other family members peppered the hospital staff with questions. Bits of the conversation – “—tried to resuscitate”, “—no brain function”, and “—organ donation” – came through the open doorway into the once again deathly pall that seemed to have been cast over the waiting room.
The man had by this time led his mother over to the couch again, embracing her as she rocked and cried softly. Elena could see his face now. He looked like he was in his thirties – probably only a few years younger than Elena. She saw the tight set of his spine and the feelings he was struggling to hold back, and the heat in her own eyes rose up. Strange and awful emotions spilled outward from inside her; she felt a painful empathy for this family and the horrible news they’d clearly just received, but to her shame she felt a sense of relief too…relief that it hadn’t been Pa the surgeons had come to give a hopeless report on.
Elena couldn’t seem to pull her gaze away from the mother and son. From her periphery vision she saw her own family was reacting in a way similar to her. Everyone had gone still, their expressions tight and their eyes filled with combined sympathy and dread.
Here it was; another hammering home of the message.
Some things just were, and there was nothing you could do about it. Time was precious. And finite. Elena had known this pretty much from birth and then had it brought more firmly into her focus through her two childhood brushes with Death. And she’d kept learning the excruciating lesson as she’d gotten older…realizing that as difficult as awareness of one’s own mortality was, it was often worse facing it in someone you loved.
She looked down at her hands, which were clasped on her knees, she realized, as if in prayer.
All that was left to do was hope that when Dr. Zeidner showed up at the waiting room door with news about Pa, the unforgiving reminder they’d all just witnessed through the Joseph Horton family’s pain wouldn’t be repeated in a more personal way. Closing her eyes, Elena prayed for that happier outcome, her mind pushing away the other possibility as inconceivable and something for which she was absolutely not ready.
But she knew better than most that that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen anyway. Life was precarious, and you never knew when your number – or the number of someone you loved – was going to be up.”