“Mom, can I see your wedding pictures?”Amelia Marcus asked.
“My what?” Josie Marcus hit the gas and nearly smacked the Hummer parked in front of them. Great. It was owned by the PTA president. Josie gave the woman an insincere smile and a little wave.
“Your wedding pictures,” Amelia said. “You know. When people get married, they get pictures taken. Woman in a white dress. Man in a black tux.”
“Don’t get sarcastic with me, Amelia Marcus,” Josie said.
The air seemed to be sucked out of the car. Josie felt an odd still silence, as if she’d just survived a bomb blast. She’d been dreading this question from her nine-year-old daughter for almost a decade, since the moment Josie knew she couldn’t marry Amelia’s father.
“Put your seat belt on,” Josie said.
Amelia had thrown her winter coat on the back seat, dropped her monogrammed backpack on the floor, and flopped down on the front seat. She must have had a difficult day at the Barrington School for Boys and Girls. Amelia’s hair stuck up at odd angles and her socks slid down into her shoes. Again.
My daughter has inherited the slippery sock gene from me, Josie thought. Amelia’s rich, dark hair and long nose were from her father, Nate. The sprinkling of freckles, like tiny flecks of chocolate, were all her own.
Josie thought her child would be a dramatic-looking woman. She was glad Amelia didn’t inherit her mother’s ordinary looks. As a mystery shopper, Josie needed to blend into the crowd when she went to the mall. But her daughter stood out, even in the throng of school children.
Not that I’m prejudiced or anything, Josie thought.
The school grounds were filled with yelling, shrieking children, running in the pale December sun. It was sixty-two degrees, unusually warm for winter in St. Louis. Tender green plant spears were poking out of the mulched beds and the trees were budding. The new buds would die in the next frost.
Josie eased carefully out of the school driveway, praying she didn’t hit any kids darting heedlessly in front of her moving vehicles. With her luck, she’d clip the child of a lawyer. Worse, two lawyers.
“Mom,” Amelia said. “I was asking about your wedding pictures. You’ve never showed them to me.”
“My wedding pictures,” Josie repeated, sailing through the stop sign at the end of the school drive. Horns blared and brakes screeched.
“Mom, that lady in the black SUV flipped you off.”
“Shame on her.” Josie gritted her teeth and tried to delay the inevitable. “Why do you want my wedding pictures?”
“We’re doing a family tree for class. Grandma showed me her wedding pictures,” Amelia said. “She has a leather photo album with gold letters. She got married in 1953 and wore a white lace Cinderella dress. She was really skinny.”
Grandma Jane had been a fairytale beauty. Too bad her marriage to my father didn’t have a happy ending, Josie thought. That particular prince turned out to be a toad in a pinstriped suit. He walked out when I was Amelia’s age. Mom worked herself half to death to put me through school. And she wonders why I didn’t want to get married.
“Mom,” Amelia nagged. “Where are your wedding pictures?”
It was hard to think straight with horns blaring and Barrington parents glaring.
“Uh, I don’t have a wedding album,” Josie said.
“Were you too poor?” Amelia said. She was a scholarship student at a rich kids’ school.“No,” Josie said. She’d considered creating a fake album by photo-shopping pictures. But she’d promised herself she wouldn’t lie to her daughter.
“Why not?” Amelia said.
“It got lost in a flood,” Josie said. The lie just sprang out of her mouth.
“What flood?” asked the child. “We live on a hill in Maplewood.”
“The great St. Louis Flood of 1993. It happened before you were born.”
“Jarred said his parents didn’t have any wedding pictures because they didn’t get married. His mother said marriage was middle-class. Zoe called Jarred a little bastard. She got detention from Miss Apple.”
“Good,” Josie said.
“Miss Apple said that Zoe was judgmental. That’s so last century.”
“She’s right,” Josie said.
Zoe was nine going on thirty-nine – the first girl in Amelia’s class to tongue-kiss a boy, drink a martini and smoke cigarettes. She dressed like Britney Spears on a bender and dispensed wildly inaccurate sex information. She told Amelia that Coke was a contraceptive douche and that girls couldn’t get pregnant the first time they had sex. Josie was amazed how many of the dangerous myths of her youth still survived.
Amelia seemed to be measuring Josie’s loud silence. “Mom, did you marry Dad?”
“Uh,” Josie said.
“I’m a bastard, aren’t I?” Amelia said.
Josie wanted to cry. “No, sweetie. That’s a terrible word. Don’t ever use it. Children are not to blame for what their parents did – or didn’t do.”
“You didn’t marry Dad, did you?”
“No,” Josie said.
“Why did you lie to me?”
“Because I didn’t want to hurt you. I was wrong, honey,” Josie said. “I loved your father very much. But I didn’t want to marry him.”
“Why not?” Amelia said. “You told me you should wait until marriage to have sex.”
“That’s the ideal,” Josie said. “But sometimes, people don’t live up to the ideal.”
“I bet Grandma was pissed when you got pregnant.”
“Amelia! You know better than to talk like that. Yes, Grandma was angry when I failed to live up to her standards. But then you were born. When she saw how cute you were, she forgot all about being mad.”
“What about Dad?” Amelia said. “Did he think I was cute?”
“I’m sure he would.”
“Would? Did he ever see me? Was he dead when I was born?”
“Yes.” A second lie. Sort of. As soon as Nate was arrested for selling drugs, he was dead to me, Josie thought.
“Where’s he buried?” Amelia asked.
“What?” Josie said. More horns blared.
“Mom, that was a red light,” Amelia said. “You drove through it.”
“I know that,” Josie said. Damn, her daughter was persistent. The kid could be a telemarketer.
“Is he buried in Arlington?” Amelia said. “Zoe’s grandfather fought in World War II and he’s buried there.”
“No, he’s not buried in Arlington,” Josie said. “He’s buried in Canada.”
That was the truth. Nate was buried in a Canadian prison. Josie considered his crime worse than murder.
She’d known this conversation was coming. She’d had plenty of time to invent a good answer. Josie had rehearsed this scene in her mind, with all the wise and tender things she’d tell her daughter, but the time never seemed right.
Josie’s mother had wanted Josie to marry Nate, then divorce him. “At least give the baby a name,” Jane had said when Josie announced her pregnancy.
“She’ll have a name,” Josie had told her mother. “If she’s a girl, I’ll call her Amelia, after the woman pilot.”
“Are you nuts?” said her mother. “Amelia Earhart vanished. They’ve never found her body.”
“She’s still a good female role model.”
“If it’s boy, will you call him Wilbur, for the Wright Brothers? How about Orville?”
“If the baby is a boy, I’ll name him Richard, after Grandpa.”
Andy, Josie’s ex-fiancé, had offered to marry her and raise the baby as his own. But the man had made his proposal sound as if he were royalty offering to marry a peasant. After all, she was damaged goods. A ready-made family would look good on Andy’s resume, Josie decided. It would show he was solid corporate material, prepared to settle down. But Andy didn’t really love her. Josie would never let her child be a springboard for anyone’s career.
Her cell phone rang, and she pulled into a parking lot to answer it. It was Mike, the hunky Dogtown plumber she’d been dating.
“Hello,” she said.
“Josie, what’s wrong?” Mike said.
Josie could picture his fabulous slate-blue eyes and broad shoulders. “Why do you think anything’s wrong?” she dodged.
“I can tell by your voice. Hm. School has just let out, so I’m guessing Amelia is in the car and she’s the problem.”
“Riiiiiight,” Josie said. She sounded fake-cheerful. “I’ll tell Amelia you asked after her. Amelia is working on a school project and she asked for my wedding pictures.”
“What did you tell her?” Mike asked.
“The pictures were lost in a flood.”
“We’ve talked about this, Josie. You ought to tell her what happened. She has the right to know the truth.”
“I told her that I loved her father very much and my life has never been the same since he’s gone,” Josie said.
“Is that true?” Mike said.
“Yes. No. I don’t know any more,” Josie said.
Amelia was staring at her mother.
“You want to go out for warm gingerbread tonight?” Mike said.
“Always,” Josie said. “Where is it?”
“The new Naughty or Nice shop on Manchester Road.”
“Someone was dumb enough to open another Christmas shop near Christmas All Year Round?” Josie said.
“Yeah, my ex-girl friend, Doreen.”
“Oh, sorry. She’s your daughter’s mother, right?”
“Right. And it was a dumb thing for Doreen to do. I don’t think that area can support three twelve-month Christmas stores, and Doreen has an ‘alternative’ Christmas shop.”
“What’s that?” Josie asked.
“You’ll have to see it to believe it,” Mike said. “I can’t explain it. But I want Doreen to succeed, so I thought I’d go tonight and buy gingerbread. Pick you up at seven?”
“Mike, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to meet your ex.”
“Doreen isn’t the jealous type,” Mike said.
“Right,” Josie said. “I believe in Santa Claus, too.”