Elizabeth raised her eyes wearily to her brother and smiled for him. "It's... been a long day, I guess."
He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "It'll get easier, Liz. I promise."
She laughed weakly. "I thought this was the easy part. I've just been on auto-pilot, this last week or so. I don't know what I'll do when it finally sinks in and I don't have anything else to plan or arrange or... or... Oh God, Maddie. I worry so much about her, now, how she's taking it..."
"Maddie's a strong girl, Liz. She takes after her mother that way. So you be a strong role model for her and don't just go back on auto-pilot, taking care of her. You need to take care of yourself, too."
"Oh, I know, Bill. I know, but..." She paused when a pair of well-wishers came up to her, glad for the respite. It was easy to take advantage of the distraction and not have to think about things. Jake had been relatively young, just in his early forties. She hadn't ever expected to lose him so soon, and yet here she was, going through the motions of a grieving widow. There was a certain mindless comfort to the routine, to knowing what was expected of her. When it was all over, and she was left to her own devices, she wasn't sure what would happen.
Reluctant to face up to her older brother's view of the future, she chose to busy herself with the modest spread on the table in the back. She fussed with the flowers, counted the number of cups left in the neat stack, transferred the few remaining cookies from one platter onto another. Anything to keep her hands occupied.
She almost bumped into Jake's great-aunt during her chores. "Oh, let me, Louise," she said, taking the tea cup from the old woman's hands to refill it.
"Oh, thank you," Loiuse sighed, charmed. "This is a very nice table you've set, Elizabeth. One of the nicest I've seen in a while, and let me tell you, when you reach my age, you've seen a lot of them."
How appalling. She smiled thinly and remembered who was speaking to her. Great-aunt Louise had always been something of a character. Much more so as she got on in years. "Um, well, thank you, Louise."
Louise patted her comfortingly on the arm. "You have a good head on your shoulders, dear, to keep track of the hundred and one details that need keeping track of, when someone dies. I hope Jake did you a favor and had his things in order before he died?"
"Uh... mostly, yes..." Surely it was too soon to be thinking of such things. "Of course, he was so young, we never expected we'd have to plan for such things, but we're taken care of. Jake was a good man. He... he..." Something welled up in her throat and she choked off her sentence, only able to resume speaking after a few seconds. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, so young." Louise shook her head sadly. "Well, no one's too young to die, Elizabeth. I hope you have plans, if something should happen to you. I can give you the number of an excellent estate lawyer. When my friend Suzie passed on, he took care of everything. He was marvelous."
Elizabeth shuddered. "I'll, uh, certainly keep that in mind, Louise."
"So young," she murmured again. "Oh! How is his son taking it, I wonder."
"We have a daughter," Elizabeth reminded her gently, almost ready to just smile, nod, and go with it. "Maddie."
"Oh, I know about her, dear. Cute as a button, she is. Saw her with her grandmother. She'll be fine. I'm talking about his son."
Just one more try, and then maybe she could smile, nod, and just go with it. Maybe she could flag someone down and have them take care of her. "Jake and I never had a son, Louise."
"I know," Louise said impatiently. "I'm talking about his son from his first marriage."
She sighed softly. "Jake doesn't have a son, Louise." Nothing good had come of that marriage, Jake said. They'd rushed into it and were too young and stupid to get it right.
"Oh, of course he did." Louise turned and found her husband some ten feet away, chatting with Jake's father. "Harold? Oh, Harold? What was that boy's name? You know, Jake's son? From his first marriage?"
Someone coughed loudly. "Louise, dear, this is hardly the time or place to be bringing such things up."
Time seemed to slide to a halt for Elizabeth. No one had called the old bat crazy. Someone had acknowledged her question as impolite, but not completely out of the blue. That meant Jake had a son. A son. From his first marriage. That he had never mentioned, not once.
"Oh, what was his name," Harold muttered to himself. Another confirmation. Either the two old people shared the delusion, or it was really true. "Danny? David?
Louise snapped her fingers in triumph. "I have it! Duo! His name was Duo! I wonder if anyone's told him yet..."
And now the delusion had a name. How quaint. She was dimly aware of someone shushing great-aunt Louise and escorting her away. Her brother showing up at her side was a little more real to her.
He led her to the empty foyer. "Liz? Are you okay?"
"A son," she whispered. "Jake had a son, and he never told me?"
"That's what it sounds like." He tried to sound sympathetic, but it came out more grim than anything else. His baby sister deserved more respect than this.
"Why didn't he ever tell me?"
Bill sighed and tried to make apologies for his brother-in-law, for his sister's sake. "Well, you know what he's always said about his first marriage..."
"He had a son, Bill!" she hissed quietly. "You can divorce a wife, but you can't divorce your son! I know that woman was no good, but a child is innocent!"
"The mother must have taken complete custody of him. Jake never paid any child support, right?"
"You can't divorce your son," she repeated numbly. She glanced over her shoulder to the rest of the people. The disturbance hadn't been smoothed over yet. For the most part, it slid into the past as if it hadn't happened. As easily dismissed as a son from a man's first marriage. Of course, it was nothing remarkable to them. This was all old news to them. Murmurs still lingered in the corner, though. It sounded like gossip. Elizabeth covered her mouth with her hand as she heard them writing off this son as a non-entity. Not part of the family. History. Nothing worth mentioning. "My God, Bill, listen to them..."
He pulled her a little farther from the others. "Don't, Liz. Jake loved you. Your marriage was nothing like his first one."
It didn't matter. She suddenly only had Jake's word for it, and it didn't seem as rock-solid as it had been just minutes ago. "What if they do the same thing to me? And Maddie? They can write me out of this family for all I care, but what about Maddie? Will her grandmother just start forgetting to send her a card on her birthday? Will they just pretend this never happened?"
Bill shook her lightly. "Get a hold of yourself, Liz."
She pulled free of his grasp, but returned to it soon enough for a hug. "Oh God, Bill, what am I going to do?"
"You aren't going to do anything, Liz. What do you think you can do? If they don't want to be your family anymore, then fine. You've got another one right here."
She sniffled, but nodded. "You're right, Bill. Of course, you're right. I..." He was right, but she still didn't have an answer to her question. But first things first. Get through this damn wake, and then... well, she could deal with it then. One thing at a time.
last modified : 10/7/2007 00:15:35 PST