6. Going Incognito

When I go in to breakfast, I find a yellow rose by my plate. When I ask who put it there, nobody speaks up. Then I happen to glance aside at Nolan, whose finger is scratched just an eeny bit. I stare at him for a moment, and he looks at me with those bright blue eyes and slowly grins. OMG, why didn't I bring him a present? Well, I'll buy him one today when I go to the mall. What a little sweetheart!

"Yanno what?" he says looking up at me over his finger. "Blood tastes pretty good."

"Ermagerd," I say in mock horror, "my little brother is a vampire."

He giggles and puts his finger in his mouth again.

Dad asks me how I slept and I tell him if sleep was money I'd be Bill Gates. Yes, it's lame, and not even true, but Dad doesn't mind. In fact he looks brimming over with happiness. Is he really so glad to have me here? Mom never looks at me like that.

While Charlotte is taking her shower, I go to the guest room to get my bags. The room doesn't look so depressing now. The sun's shining through one of the windows, so much so that I can see a wink of color through the white bedspread. I raise it and see the most gorgeous patchwork quilt ever, and it looks brand new. Did Katie buy that for me? Oh crap, I'm going to burst into tears again...but this time I manage to get it all under control. What an ungrateful p.o.s. I am...but I'll make it up to her. I'll buy her something fabulous today. I've no idea what she'd like, but maybe Charlotte can tell me.

Meanwhile I haul my bags into Charlotte's room and dump the contents on the floor. Since I'm going to get rid of stuff, I'll let Charlotte have her pick first, then sort out what I want to keep and take pictures of the rest for eBay. Charlotte comes in with a towel wrapped around her body and another around her hair, and she gawks at all the richness spilled on the floor.

"I've got way too much stuff," I say, "and I've decided to sell some of it on eBay and donate the proceeds to St. Jude's Children's Hospital. If you see anything you like, help yourself."

Her eyes and mouth both plop wide open and she nearly drops the towel wrapped around her.

"Can I really?" she says. "Let me get some clothes on and then I'll come look. Oh Tanya, you're so good to me."

And she drops both towels right then and there and prances naked as a jaybird over to her chest of drawers, where she pulls some underwear from the top drawer. Oh God, she's beautiful all over, just like a work of art. Yet in the moment, envy takes a back seat, and I think I love her for her beauty instead of in spite of it.

Ok Tanya, stop staring, you perv. I busy myself with picking out items while she dresses. Soon she comes skipping over, without even combing out her hair, and plops herself down on the floor cooing and ooing over my bling-bling. She's in a cotton print peasant top the same shade of blue as her eyes, with bits of pink and yellow and turquoise mixed in. And yellow Jeggings. I doubt there's a single color she can't wear.

"Ohhh, how can you part with these?" she sighs holding up my black opal pavé drop earrings—the exact ones I wore yesterday. Wait, I can't part with those. Why didn't I hide them? Oh, damn, too late now. She's putting them on, absolutely enraptured. Then she picks up a silver and white jade necklace and gazes at it with rapture, then looks at me.

"Oh Tanya...I won't take this," she says handing it back to me. "I can see you still want it. Why would you even think of giving up such a gorgeous thing? You take it now, ok?"

I numbly take the necklace. She picks out some other goodies, and ends up with about eighty-five percent of them. Then she sorts through scarves and gloves and small purses and hair thingies, and she actually kisses a rhinestone-studded black velvet evening bag. At least she can't wear my shoes. She's easily a six and I'm just as easily a nine.

"I just adore beautiful things," she says as she spreads her new treasures out on her bed to gaze at them. "You prob'ly think I'm a sillyhead, but I can't help it."

"Join the club," I say smiling a little. Well, if she just hadn't taken those earrings… Get over it, Tanya. You made her day. Let's just get on with our life, shall we? She did stick up for you. Remember the stars, how they made all your stuff look like a bunch of gaudy junk.

Wish they were out right now to re-convince me….

"You know what?" she says after a moment, the radiance diminished a little. "I took way too much. Them poor lil kids with cancer! I shouldn't be deprivin' them of the money you'll make. Here, let me give you this back, and this, and this..."

She winces at each item she returns to me like she's tearing them out of her own skin. I keep hoping she'll tear out the earrings too, but no ma'am. Oh well…

Of course there are a million things to do around the house before we can go off shopping. It's not as daunting as I thought it would be. Babs did make me do some things around the house, saying it's no good for a big girl like me to sit on my duff watching the tube or gabbing on the phone all day. But I've never run a vacuum cleaner before. I was terrified of ours when I was tiny little. It was so loud and looked like a big mean monster that would eat me up if I got near it, or an evil robot from outer space that would suck me up and fly me off to a distant planet like in the cartoons. Katie's looks fairly tame though. There's just the big rug in the living room, and the little ones in the bedrooms. Maybe I could take it on. Then again, maybe some other time...

Oh, do it now, you big pussy. It's just a damn machine. It hasn't eaten anybody up here. What are you, a woman or a mouse?

Hey look, I'm running it! Woot! I am woman, hear this sucker roar!

Erk—what's happening now? It's making some funny noise that startles me so I step back and trip on that fan thingy in front of the fireplace. I fall on my tush and sit right on it, knocking over one of the china dogs, which breaks. Oh, Tanya. Oh, Tanya. Can't you do anything right?

Katie and Charlotte both scramble to see what's going on. Katie turns off the vac and Charlotte stoops over to help me up, frantically asking if I'm all right.

"I''m fine," I whimper, "but I broke a doggie." Forlornly I pick up the fallen china dog. Its head is broken right off.

"Are you hurt?" Katie asks me. Her priceless china dog is broken and she's asking me if I'm hurt? Maybe she does like me. Yeah, there's that quilt….

She says don't worry about the dog, it's from a yard sale and she's got some glue that can easily fix it. The vac caught a wad of yarn that's stopping it up. I didn't see it because it blended in with the rug. Katie says don't worry about it, as she extricates the yarn from the beater brushes. When you've got a five-year-old boy in the house, things are bound to get stuck in the vacuum cleaner and other places. There, now it works fine. I finish up the vacuuming and we have a mid-morning snack of fruit salad and coffee, and Nolan comes in and we watch Warner Brothers cartoons for about half an hour. He really gets into them, shouting encouragement at the characters, then laughing like mad when something outrageous happens, saying to us, "Did you see that?" then cracking up all over again. His laugh, while it sounds like something between a Tarzan yell and Popeye's chuckle, is contagious, and we're all cracking up too before long. I do imitations of some of the characters—Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Speedy Gonzales, and some others. I don't think I'm that good, but Nolan's soon rolling on the floor. He's quite easily entertained.

"I'm goin' to kiddergarden this year," he tells me between cartoons.

"Think you'll like it?" I say after a moment.

"Yup!" he says. This kid doesn't waste words.

"Well, holy snowflakes!" I say, remembering what he said in his sleep last night.

"Yup," he says without batting an eye. "Did you go to kiddergarden when you was a little kid?"

"Yup," I say in imitation of him. It makes him giggle, Charlotte too.

"Did you like it?" he asks as he leans back on his hands and kicks his feet up.

"Yup," I say. We all three crack up. Katie comes from the kitchen with a pitcher of lemonade to see what's so all-fired funny. This is family. This is the bee's knees. This is totally, totally dope.

After a while we go outside to help her with gardening. It's a gorgeous day out, not too hot, and the sky is so much bluer out here than in the city, it's unreal. Katie's talking to the lady next door, Mrs. Ritter. Katie introduces us, without telling her who my mom is, and Mrs. Ritter looks at me with friendly interest over the gate to her back yard. Dad's cutting her grass now, since she's a widow. We have to talk loud over the noise.

"You look kindly familiar, hon," she says after a moment, adjusting her glasses. "You ever been here before?"

"Yes'm," I say. I'd pushed up my shades, out of politeness, but I put them back down quickly. "My eyes are sensitive," I explain, although it's shady where I stand. "I've been here before, but it's been a while."

That's only a partial lie. I've been out to Grandpa's farm a few times before Mom and Dad split up. Yes, we went to town a time or two, but it's unlikely that Mrs. Ritter saw me then. I hope she doesn't ask me any more questions….

Then out of the corner of my eye I see Charlotte talking to a boy. He's out there leaning on a fire hydrant. He wears shades too, and a sleeveless t-shirt and jeans, got a barb-wire tattoo on his left arm. Probably says BAD ASS FROM HELL or HAND ME YOUR HEART SO I CAN STOMP ON THAT SUCKER AND MASH IT INTO THE GROUND. Must be that dude she mentioned last night, the one she likes, or is it the other guy, that likes her? He looks pretty nice in an outlaw biker wanna-be kind of way. Curly brown hair not quite touching his shoulders (mullet alert!) lean jaw and a nice tan. A bit on the skinny side, but he's got potential.

Mrs. Ritter asks me what part of Tennessee I'm from. I tell her it's close to Nashville. Then I say "'Scuse me a minute, I need to ask Charlotte somethin'," which is kind of rude, but I'm afraid she'll start recognizing me if I hang around much longer. I've a feeling she's one of those talky old ladies who'll keep you there forever if you don't get away fast, asking you all sorts of questions you don't want to answer. Where do you go to school? Do you like it? Do you have a boyfriend? What's your mother doing? I go sprinting over to where Charlotte and the guy are, and say howdy.

"I'm Charlotte's sister," I say. Nolan's driving his toy car up and down the driveway, going "Yeeee haaaawwww!" like he's riding the rodeo, and "Outta my way, varmit!" to a squirrel in obvious imitation of Yosemite Sam. I need some of that energy!

"Howdy do," the guy says sticking out one hand for me to shake. "I'm Curt. I live down thataway." He jerks his head in the general direction of "thataway."

"In that yeller house over there on the corner," Charlotte clarifies, pointing it out to me. It's about a block and a half away. There's a red Dodge pickup out front of it, kinda beat up. Oh yeah, them good ole boys ain't bad.

I keep my shades on, just waiting for him to say, "Where have I seen you before?" He's looking at me pretty hard. Maybe this incognito thing isn't going to work. I can't wear sunglasses ALL the time, can I? Even though I have six pairs. And the tabloids had a field day with the divorce. That was six years ago, but somebody's bound to remember.

"Scuse me, I'm gettin' a text," Charlotte says after a moment. She steps aside to take it. Curt takes off his shades while she does so. His eyes are green like mine, only more blue. Kind of like the bottom of a retro Coke bottle.

"Charlotte says you just got in yesterday," he says with a glance in her direction. More than a glance. I can see his tattoo now. It doesn't say anything at all, it's just an arrowhead. "How ya likin' it?"

"It's dope," I say. "Reckon I'll be stickin' around for a while."

"Reckon so?" he says scratching the back of his neck.

"Yeah," I say. "It's sure different from...where I used to live." Ulp. Wrong move. Now he's going to ask...

Charlotte turns back to us. "That was Melanie," she says. "She's gonna come pick us up about twelve."

"Can I come along?" Curt says. I can't tell if he's joking or not.

"We're goin' shoppin' and all," Charlotte says with a little laugh. "Girl stuff. You wouldn't like it."

"I like girl stuff," he says. Damn, he really does like her. Poor shmuck, he can't take his eyes off her. And no wonder.

"No, you don't," she says giving him a little shove and laughing. She's totally leading him on. Not that he isn't practically begging for it.

"Nice earrings," he says reaching out a finger toward one. Ouch.

"Aren't they? Tanya give 'em to me," she says holding one up for his inspection, like she really supposes that it's her earrings he's interested in. He looks at her like "Tanya who?" Well…

"No kiddin'?" he says.

"She give me lots of things," Charlotte says. "She's so generous. She's gonna put the rest on eBay and raise money for St. Jude's."

Oh, Charlotte. I didn't mean for you to go blabbing it all over town.

"No kiddin'," he says again. "So how come y'all goin' shoppin' then? When you already got a bunch of new stuff."

"Shopping's not just about buying," I say before she can come up with an answer. "It's about hanging out with your friends and bonding and all. Kinda like you guys with sports and fishing and hunting and all that."

"No kiddin'," he says. He's staring at me now. Wow. Was what I said so profound? Well, maybe it is for him.

"So gals just go shoppin' to hang out," he says. "Now that's somethin' else."

"Learn somethin' new every day, don't ya," I say. He puts his shades back on, and at the same time, I forget and take mine off. They're pinching me over the ears and giving me a headache. Oops! I remember and clap them back on again. But since he's got his on too, I can't see if there's any recognition in his eyes.

"I better go in and get changed," I say a moment later. "I've kinda worked up a sweat."

"You look ok to me," he says. "Know what my great-grandma said once? She said when she was a gal she used to go shoppin' with her friends in gloves and hats and high heels."

"I know, right?" I say. "Mine used to do that too."

"Hey, I seen you yesterday," he says. "Was that lady in the car your momma?"

"You saw me?" I said not answering his question on purpose. Uh oh. Here we go now. Well, who was I fooling? Of course I can't keep this up, not even just for the summer.

"Yeah," he says. "I wa'n't close up enough to see her so good, with all them gals crowdin' around, but I kept thinkin' I seen her before."

"Maybe she just looks like somebody," I say. Wow, Tanya.

"I feel like I seen you before too," he says. "Cain't think where at, though."

Just then Nolan comes barreling up the sidewalk in his car, singing, "Here I come to save the day!" just like Mighty Mouse. Curt jumps pretty far back as Nolan hollers "BEEP BEEP!" like the Road Runner.

"Whoa," Curt says. "Watch it there, lil buddy. You're liable to git pulled over."

"Hey you," Nolan says and backs up.

"Nice ride," Curt says. "Yo, gimme some skin." He raises a hand and Nolan reaches out and high-fives him. Then they fist bump. I snicker at Curt's attempt to sound all cool and ghetto with that broad hillbilly accent of his. "You practicin' up to be in NASCAR?"

"Yup," Nolan says. "Vroom vroom vroom vroom vroommmmm!"

"You da man, dude," Curt says and holds his forefinger and pinky up.

Charlotte, who's been staring at her phone all this time, giggles too. So Curt likes kids too.

"Betcha can't catch meeee," Nolan says and takes off once more.

"Bet I can," Curt says and trots off after him. "Hey there, buddy, no fair. You're on wheels and I'm on feet." He pretends to puff and pant. Nolan giggles shrilly.

Whew. That was close. But he'll remember. Just give him time. Maybe he already knows. Maybe Charlotte can persuade him to keep it to himself. Maybe. Then again….