Phoenix, Arizona 1998
"Great," Gretchen Lauterbach mumbled to herself as she contemplated the formidable mass of clouds looming to the southeast of the city. "Another birthday spent crammed under a circus tent with 150 sweaty well wishers." She looked at the near-empty driveway and groaned. "Even better, I'm the first one here."
Which, she supposed, was as it should be, seeing as how she was one of the guests of honor. But to have arrived before her older brother Bernard, who usually made even the most punctual look late, was no small trick. One she believed she had never before accomplished. She interpreted it as a bad sign.
Preparing for a quick after-party getaway, she pulled her car to a stop at the end of the semi-circular drive and again eyed the dark clouds gathering overhead. So what had held Bernard up? Sure he'd been extremely busy preparing for the upcoming preliminary and his run at the state senate seat, but, as his campaign coordinator, so had she. Then, as if they didn't already have enough social pressures, their mother had decided to invite Bernard's most prominent campaign supporters to the party, making this year's festivities extra special. Perhaps before having to endure yet another round of obligatory handshakes and smiles, he and Elizabeth were savoring a few precious minutes alone. Something Gretchen would have been wise to do herself. No doubt Bernard would arrive shortly.
Reluctantly, Gretchen abandoned her car's air-conditioned comfort only to be assaulted by a wave of furnace-hot desert air, which was now laced with out-of-the-ordinary humidity and the smell of rain. She hustled up the flagstones to the front door.
"Oh, yeah, this means trouble," she reaffirmed after several lightning bolts singed the sky.
Gretchen didn't know why she took the rain as a bad sign. For the last eight years her mother had held the midsummer party on the back lawn and nothing catastrophic had ever happened. The air-conditioned tents provided more than adequate respite from the Valley of the Sun's scorching triple-digit temperatures, and they'd withstood monsoon downpours before, too. So what was her problem? If she insisted on seeing doom at every turn, she'd find it. Yet, she couldn't help herself. Nor could she shrug the sense of despair that pressed down upon her.
She let herself into the house, relishing the cool air that welcomed her. She wondered if she was anxious because of Gram. While Gretchen was celebrating her twenty-ninth birthday today, Gram was celebrating her ninety-eighth. As much as Gretchen would like, she knew her grandmother wasn't going to live forever. A fact emphasized by Gram's recently diagnosed dementia, the latest ailment added to an ever-increasing, and rapidly accumulating, list of health complications.
Gretchen wondered if the dementia would affect Gram's attitude toward the party. In years past, Gram openly mocked and stubbornly protested the annual event. The worst came the year before, when she refused to leave her room and appeared only briefly--and none-too-happily--for the cake-cutting ceremony. But that was last year. Now, Gram was but a shadow of her former self. These days she spent the majority of her wheelchair-bound time staring silently at the walls, keeping any opinions that she might have to herself.
Yes, Gretchen admitted to herself, that's the source of my angst, the reality that this very well could be the last birthday I'll spend with Gram.
Then she immediately scolded herself. She shouldn't be mourning her grandmother's passing before it even happened. She should be making the best of whatever time they had left together. Adjusting her attitude, she headed down the gallery towards Gram's bedroom, her footsteps clicking on the grand foyer's marble floor. As she passed the living room, a soft voice with a faint accent called to her.
"Bonjour, ma fleur."
Gretchen turned to see Gram sitting by the piano. She was dressed in a simple pink silk dress, her curly, silvery-white hair neatly coiffed, her withered cheeks sporting a tint of rouge.
"Gram? What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be hiding? You do know today's the big day, don't you?" Gretchen asked, half teasing, half not. She walked over, bent down and kissed her grandmother's cheek.
As was her typical response to attempts at conversation these days, Gram merely nodded and smiled up at her granddaughter.
Gretchen proceeded to speak like she always did, under the assumption that even though Gram didn't communicate like she once had, she was still capable of understanding what was said to her, an assumption not popular with most members of the family.
"I know it's not polite to remind a woman of her age, but I have to tell you, Gram, ninety-eight fits you well. You look great."
Again the smile, accompanied this time by a slight chuckle.
"We'll be damn lucky to look that good when we're her age. Even luckier if any of us makes it there," Erich Lauterbach said from behind them.
"Hi, Dad," Gretchen said, turning to see her father walking into the room, arms open.
"Happy Birthday, sweetie. You ready for all this nonsense?" he asked after giving her a quick hug.
"I guess," she shrugged.
"Well, your grandmother's certainly ready. No arguments this year. She's been waiting out here for an hour."
"Oh?" Gretchen asked, raising an eyebrow. "Expecting a hot date, Gram?" But her grandmother didn't respond to the jest.
"Speaking of people who look terrific....hard to believe my baby girl's going to turn thirty next year."
"Don't remind me," Gretchen groaned. "I'm still not sure how I feel about that."
"Let me tell you," her mother answered, blowing in from the lanai with Mrs. Waite, Gram's nurse, in tow. "You should be panicked. You're not married, and as far as I know you're not even dating. Have you seen the recent statistics for the likelihood of women marrying after thirty?"
Lucile pecked the air in front of Gretchen's cheek before stepping back to eye her daughter from head to toe.
"Look at you. No wonder you're still single. You've gained weight, haven't you? Or maybe it's that dress. Yellow's not your color. Makes you look heavy. I thought we agreed you were going to wear that little blue Donna Karan I picked up for you the other day. Blue really suits you better. Might not hide your figure, but it brings out your eyes--"
"That's a hell of a way to greet your daughter on her birthday, Lucile," Erich snapped. "Apologize."
Lucile glared hotly at her husband and said, "You're not helping, Erich. What's the point of truth if everyone avoids it?"
"Maybe we avoid it because your version is skewed."
Gretchen's parents scowled at one another, then Erich asked, "Is there something you need help with, or have you harped on the musicians and chewed out the caterers adequately by yourself?"
Gretchen suppressed a smile. The insult was lost on Lucile.
"Oh, now you want to help. Where were you an hour ago when the tent's air-conditioning unit failed? I could have used your help then. The ice sculpture started melting and the flowers wilted."
"I was in the study. You knew that. All you had to do was send for me."
Gretchen's parents conducted a silent boxing match with their eyes until the ringing of the doorbell ended their bout. Mrs. Guff, the Lauterbach's housekeeper, scurried out from the kitchen, where she'd been overseeing the catering staff, and answered the door. A few seconds later she entered the living room and announced the arrival of the Temples. Mr. Temple was one of Erich's oldest business associates--and one of Bernard's biggest contributors.
After they conveyed their birthday felicitations to Gram and Gretchen, Erich led them to the beverages on the back lawn. The doorbell rang again, the second in what would become a steady stream of non-family member guests. Gretchen helped Mrs. Waite wheel Gram to the screened-in lanai, where the guests would pass en route to the tent. Lucile and Mrs. Guff stayed near the front door--Lucile to greet newcomers and direct them to the birthday girls, and Mrs. Guff to collect the gifts, which she arranged in a tidy display atop the baby grand.
It wasn't long before Gretchen found herself swept outside. She endured a tiring hour of non-stop mingling, several painful minutes of which were spent listening to admonishments from Mrs. Dodding for working so hard and still not having a man. The torture ended when the shamelessly status-obsessed woman spied the governor and his wife and abruptly excused herself from Gretchen's company.
Abandoned, but thankful for the precious few moments alone, Gretchen surveyed the festivities, searching for a non-demanding companion with whom she could comfortably visit until cake-cutting time. She considered the guests swarming around the buffet, but saw no one she wanted to engage in conversation. She admired the ice-sculpted swan, unperturbed by the many hands reaching for shrimps, cheeses, and fruits, floating amidst the flowery backdrop. Small beads of water glistened on the centerpiece's curved neck and frozen wings before cascading into the holding tray below. The swan's edges weren't as sharp as they could have been, but considering the temporary air-conditioning outage the sculpture had suffered through, it was fairing well. Even the flowers had recovered, after receiving fresh water and a reprieve inside the mansion.
"Lost?" a familiar voice asked, interrupting Gretchen's ruminations.
Gretchen turned to find her sister-in-law and cousin standing behind her, smirking. "Finally cut loose from Mrs. Dodding, huh?" Veronica asked.
Gretchen frowned and said with feigned dismay, "Even though I'm a guest of honor, I'm still nowhere near as exciting as the governor."
"We bet on how long she'd chew your ear," Elizabeth said.
"Oh, that's nice. So which one of you profited from my misfortune?"
"Me," Veronica said, holding up a twenty-dollar bill.
"Heck of a way to earn mad money, Nica," Gretchen said.
"A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do," Veronica shrugged.
"What's so funny?" Gretchen asked. With a hint of sarcasm she asked, "And why is it you're standing around making bets with her instead of promoting the candidate?"
"I'm taking a break," Elizabeth said. After a sip of wine she arched one of her perfectly shaped eyebrows and asked, "As his wife, I think I'm entitled to that at least."
"Touché," Gretchen said.
Elizabeth eyed the remains in her glass, then looked up, scanned the party scene, and frowned, her green eyes troubled. They lit up when a handsome young waiter appeared and handed her a fresh glass of wine. "Here you go, Mrs. Lauterbach. Sorry about the delay. Got caught up in the traffic jam." He nodded over his shoulder at the group of people milling in front of the bar.
They couldn't see him, but they heard Bernard's bellowing voice, followed by a hearty round of laughter, and they knew he was doing what he did best: selling himself.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, smiled, and nodded at the waiter. Her smile brightened when her gaze fixed on something past Gretchen's shoulder. She set her glass on the table and said, "Excuse me for a minute, ladies. I see the perfect opportunity to promote the candidate, Gretchen. Bernie wanted me to make sure I had a word with the governor. Dazzle him with my brilliance...or baffle him with my bullshit. Whichever. Anyway, I see the perfect opportunity."
Veronica and Gretchen followed Elizabeth's line of sight and saw Governor Hendricks, clearly agitated but trying to remain gracious, still in Mrs. Dodding's clutches.
"Oh, that's pure brilliance. Rescuing him from her will definitely earn Bernard brownie points," Veronica said.
Elizabeth smiled and winked, then headed off to save the governor. When she was out of earshot, Gretchen asked her cousin, "How's she doing?"
"What do you mean?" Veronica asked.
"With the drinks. She's not snarfing 'em down, is she?"
"No. She knows better and she's been good. A half glass at all times."
"That's what I'm worried about; her drinking until it's half-empty, then setting it down and getting another. Which, at that pace, she'll get tanked."
Veronica frowned while she watched Elizabeth talking to the governor, who now looked relieved and was even smiling.
"I don't know, Gretch. Maybe booze helps her think. I mean, strategy is key, and that really was genius of her to A, not rush to talk to Governor Hendricks when he first arrived, and B, approach him when he's stuck with someone like Mrs. Dodding."
"You call it genius, I call it luck."
"No, I call it cutting her some slack. She's been through a lot lately. So what if she has a couple of drinks?"
"I know losing the baby was hard on her, but Bernie should've considered that when he accepted the nomination. Logan would just love to run a smear campaign against Bernie...and he wouldn't hesitate using Elizabeth."
"I know, I know. We've been over all of this before. But come on, Gretch. This is a birthday party. Your birthday party. Do you really think your mother would let any of Logan's spies in?"
Gretchen thought about it for a second, then shook her head.
Veronica's eyes narrowed at something over Gretchen's shoulder. "Pipe down. She's coming back."
A few moments later, Elizabeth rejoined them.
"I only have two hands so here's a glass of chardonnay for whoever wants one."
"Thanks," Veronica said, taking the wine and smiling facetiously at Gretchen.
"How'd it go with Governor Hendricks?" Gretchen asked.
"Fine. Short and sweet."
"Perfect," Veronica said.
"How's everything else going for you, Liz? You holding up okay?" Gretchen asked.
Elizabeth shrugged, but volunteered nothing. Knowing how sensitive the baby issue was, neither Veronica nor Gretchen probed further.
As yet, Lucile and Erich Lauterbach had not been blessed with any grandchildren--unless Gretchen's older sister Rachel, who had been virtually disowned by Gretchen's parents five years before, had had one. Even if she had, given the current circumstances, Lucile and Erich wouldn't have acknowledged the baby's existence anyway. Regardless, it was highly unlikely that Rachel would be the one to bless the family with the first grandchild. She was forty-four, a year younger than Bernard, was not married, and had never expressed any interest in becoming a mother--except to Hitch, a mutt she'd rescued from the highway many years before.
Then there was Gretchen. Like her sister, she was single, but she was also much younger. She'd been born late in Lucile and Erich's lives, coming as somewhat of a "surprise"--not an "accident", Gram had often insisted, as none of God's children were that--to parents who thought their childrearing days were behind them. Since Bernard and Elizabeth's childbearing years were numbered, Gretchen's parents--mainly her mother--now looked to their youngest daughter as their sole heir-providing source. A pressure Gretchen could have done without, but one that made her more sympathetic to her brother's plight.
As the only male child, Bernard was painfully aware that his parents desired more from him than just grandchildren. They wanted a boy to carry on the family name. It wasn't like he and Elizabeth hadn't tried. For the last ten years they'd tried everything, but with no luck. Now, instead of worrying about how to simultaneously finance college educations and retirement funds like their peers were doing, Bernard and Elizabeth prayed the next fertility treatment would work. They'd discussed adoption, but Lucile quickly put the kibosh on that idea, making one message in particular perfectly clear to the entire family: anyone lacking Lauterbach blood would never be acknowledged as her grandchild. Period. Everyone got the message.
"Have you heard from Rachel yet this year?" Veronica asked, breaking what had turned into an uncomfortable silence. She was one of the few family members who asked Gretchen and Bernard about their sister, and one of even fewer who sent along hellos. Rachel and Veronica hadn't been close, but they'd always been amiable. Perhaps because of their shared position on Lucile's Top 10 list of most despised family members.
"You know, I haven't. Not even a card. But I expect I will. I'm hoping she calls this year, but I guess it depends on where she is. I'm not even sure she's in the States."
The waiter appeared with champagne. Elizabeth and Veronica traded in their chardonnays, then Elizabeth fixed her focus on the tent's arched plastic windows and changed the subject to the weather.
"Looks like we're in for a heck of a storm."
Gretchen followed her sister-in-law's gaze and sighed. The little bit of blue sky that had been overhead when she'd first arrived was gone. In its place reigned the legion of clouds she'd seen threatening to take over from the south. The bird of paradise and oleander bushes thrashed in the growing winds, and the air smelled wet and sweet with the promise of rain.
"Speaking of storms," Veronica said, nodding her head. Gretchen turned and saw her mother approaching them.
"Elizabeth. Veronica." Lucile smiled at her daughter-in-law, but addressed her niece with unbridled disdain.
"Lucile," Veronica answered, her tone cold to match her aunt's. Elizabeth simply nodded and smiled.
"It's time to cut the cake, Gretchen."
"I'll be right there, Mother."
Lucile nodded demurely to Elizabeth before shooting Veronica one last disapproving sneer. The girls watched her strut back to the front of the tent where the caterers were setting the massive birthday cake on Gram's table.
"She's such a ...viper," Veronica said, respecting Gretchen's presence and keeping what she had truly wanted to say to herself.
Gretchen smiled sympathetically. Lucile had never liked anything about her older sister Marguerite--including Veronica, Marguerite's only child. From what Gretchen understood about the aunt she'd never known, Marguerite's death had been as unjust as it was untimely. She'd been murdered shortly after Gretchen's birth, but the murderer had never been caught. The tragedy hadn't softened Lucile's attitude towards her sister's offspring any; even though, at age twenty, Veronica found herself essentially orphaned, having lost her father to a car accident a few months prior to her mother's death.
"Guess I better get front and center, and smile pretty for the cameras," Gretchen said.
"That you better," Elizabeth agreed, raising the champagne glass in farewell and demonstrating immense restraint by not indulging in a pre-toast sip.
Gretchen approached her grandmother, placed a hand on her shoulder, and kissed the top of her head.
"Did you meet all the nice people, ma fleur?" Gram asked.
Gretchen eyed the crowd of guests gathering in front of them and said, "Yes, Gram. They're all here to wish us, but especially you, Happy Birthday."
"All these people? Here to see me?" Gram asked, genuinely surprised. "No, I don't think so."
Before Gretchen could answer, her father boomed, "A birthday toast!" He winked at his daughter before turning to the crowd. "Happiness always to two of my most favorite women, my gorgeous mother-in-law and my darling baby girl. May you both continue to grow more beautiful with each passing year."
Everyone lifted their glasses and the remarks, "Here, here!" and "Well said!" resonated throughout the tent. The guests serenaded Gretchen and Gram while the musicians provided the Happy Birthday melody. The singing ended in a round of applause, then Gram leaned in, Gretchen bent down, and together they blew out their candles, which was followed by more clapping. One member of the catering staff hustled to transfer cake slices to plates while the other servers lined up to distribute them.
"Make sure Rachel gets a piece," Gram said. Gretchen was about to explain that her sister wasn't there, but she saw Gram smiling at someone and she turned to see whom.
It took a moment for the raven-haired woman's face to register, although it was complete surprise, and not because Gretchen didn't immediately recognize the olive-skinned beauty. Gretchen, like Bernard, took after her father's Germanic origins and donned golden brown hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. Rachel, on the other hand, inherited their mother's Spanish and French blood. There was no mistaking the dark cascading curls, the oval face, or the exotic eyes. If it were possible for Lucile to have a much younger twin, Rachel would be it. She was thinner than Gretchen remembered, and she looked frazzled--which was understandable considering her unexpected appearance--but, overall, she was as radiant as ever.
"What on earth are you doing here?" Lucile shrieked, after turning around to see what had caused Gretchen to blanche.
For one moment, a hush fell over the crowd. Then the whispers started. "Who's that woman?" "That's their other daughter." And from those who were newer family acquaintances, "I didn't know they had two girls."
"Rachel?" Gretchen's voice broke the icy stare down between mother and oldest daughter.
"Leave! Right now!" Lucile shouted.
Erich clutched his wife's elbow and whispered in ear, "Lucile, let's take this somewhere else. You don't want to create a scene."
And that was all it took, reminding Lucile where she was--and who was there. Flaunting her best smile and a gentler voice, she requested that Rachel please accompany her into the house.
"Forget it," Rachel said. "I came here to see Gram, and that's what I'm going to do."
"I'm sure you have a lot of catching up to do, but, as you can see, this is not a convenient time. My family is in the middle of a party."
If Lucile's words had stung--as it was obvious they were meant to--it didn't show.
"You can't keep me away forever."
"I've done pretty good so far."
"I need to see her."
"Over my dead body."
"If that's what it takes."
"Stop it!" Erich commanded. Somewhere a flash went off. Lucile groaned.
"See what's happening?" Erich hissed through clenched teeth. "That's the society columnist you insisted on inviting."
Rachel approached her parents.
"I'm not sure why you're here, but you better have a damn good reason," Erich said.
"I do. Gram."
Rachel took another step forward, but Lucile flew into a rage.
"You stay away from her!" she screamed, rushing at Rachel, grabbing her shoulders, and pushing her backwards.
"Let go!" Rachel shrieked.
Mortified, Gretchen watched in horror as her father struggled to pull the women apart. All the while the photographer clicked away, capturing the squabble's every grappling detail.
"Okay, okay," Rachel said, shrugging out of reach from her mother's clawing fingers. "I get it, okay? Don't you understand I just came to see Gram?"
"And so you have. Now leave," Lucile insisted, smoothing her skirt.
Rachel headed out of the tent, but paused when Gram's scratchy voice pleaded, "No. Please. I want to talk to her."
Rachel turned around. Her bottom lip quivered, her eyes glistened with tears. "I'm sorry, Gram," she said softly. And with that, she dashed across the lawn and disappeared around the side of the house.
Gretchen started to run after her sister, but her father grabbed her and held her back.
"Let her go, Gretchen. It'll only make things worse."
"But we haven't seen her in five years! How can you just abandon one of your own children like this?"
Overhead, thunder crashed, followed by a zip of lightning. The dazzling white after-burn flickered across the guests' stunned faces. Then the rain came, a threatening deluge that assaulted the tent's top, instantly drenching everything not covered.
Her father's sad eyes caught Gretchen off guard, revealing something she'd never before considered. He missed Rachel too.~*~
Upset by Rachel's dramatic exit, Gram started crying. Mrs. Waite quickly wheeled her away from the guests. After helping her parents with damage control, Gretchen finally had a chance to sneak away and check on her grandmother.
She found Gram in her bedroom, sitting in her recliner, watching the storm through a large bay window topped with a soft pink swag. Along with rain, the room smelled of rose-scented lotion. The sounds from the party, the music and the conversation, were barely audible, muffled in part by the frenzied, watery drumbeat of raindrops pelting against the glass. Every few minutes a violent thunder-boom rattled the house and shook the panes, and flashes of lightning illuminated the storm-darkened bedroom, but Gram didn't seem to notice.
Gretchen asked the nurse to give them a few minutes alone, and Mrs. Waite obliged. Gretchen went to sit next to her grandmother in a wingback chair covered in pink and white floral chintz. With the exception of the white walls and the white leather recliner, almost everything in the room was pink, Gram's favorite color. The floor was covered in a plush, dusty-pink pile, which, on Gram's more coherent days, she referred to as her carpet of rose petals.
Against the west wall, before the door that led to the pink and white tiled bathroom, stood a large bureau where powder, rouge, and lipstick shared space with the pictures of Gram's grandchildren. A large portrait of Gram's late husband hung on the wall. Five more frames filled with young, smiling faces--Gram's children in their teens and twenties--surrounded their father's imposing, stern face.
To the left of Gram's recliner stood a nightstand that held a pink porcelain lamp with an ivory-fringed lampshade, a bottle of lotion, and a box of tissues. There was no bed in the room. Because the arthritis and osteoporosis had left her back so crooked it caused her unbearable pain to lie flat on a regular mattress, Gram preferred sleeping in the recliner. She was more than comfortable in it, especially since it faced the window and the ring of pink rosebushes with the birdbath in the center. Knowing her mother's love for nature, roses and birds in particular, Lucile had had the gardener arrange the display. It was one of the few concessions, besides the recliner, that Lucile had made in an effort to make Gram's life in the Lauterbach mansion pleasant.
From where Gretchen sat she glimpsed a portion of the front drive, where another wave of guests braved the downpour and dashed to their cars. There were still plenty of cars remaining, though. Since Gram was fine, Gretchen stood, imagining her mother could probably use some more damage control assistance.
"Do you need anything before I go, Gram?"
Expecting at best a simple shake of the head, Gretchen was surprised when her grandmother answered, "Yes, I do need something."
"Sure thing. What?"
"For you to go to France."
That was not the answer Gretchen had been expecting. A request for a glass of water, or for a slice of the cake she'd never had a chance to taste, but not for a trip to another country. Was Gram suffering a dementia-fit? Gretchen hoped not. She loved her grandmother, but it always frightened her to see Gram lost in her mind like that.
"I can't go to France, Gram," Gretchen said softly.
Saying more all at once than she'd said in many months, Gram asked, "Why not? You've always wanted to, and I need you to go. If I had asked Rachel, she would have said yes without hesitation."
Gretchen frowned. Frustrating as it was, it was a fact: Gram's short-term memory didn't function anymore. The same person could visit her every day for a month, but she'd never remember. As soon as the visitor left, she'd ask about their well-being and wonder why they hadn't stopped by lately. Yet, Rachel's brief appearance had stuck in her mind. Why? Because there'd been such an ugly scene? Or had Gretchen been too hasty in assuming Gram was in one of her delusional states? She decided to test Gram's mental waters.
"Were you planning on asking Rachel?"
Gram studied her granddaughter's face for several moments before answering. "If I had known she was coming today, yes, I may have asked her. You see, my time is almost up." Unable to ignore the look of horror in Gretchen's eyes, she reached for her granddaughter's hand and added, "Not just yet, ma fleur, but close. There's a promise I made long ago. One I must keep before I die...and before my foggy old brain has me swimming in the past forever."
"You know, Gram?" Gretchen asked, sinking back down onto the chair. It had never occurred to her that her grandmother might be aware of her plight.
"Sometimes, yes," Gram nodded. "Though sometimes, like now, the fog lifts. I know where I am. I know whom I'm with. That's not always the case, but I can tell you this, while I have the chance. Even if it seems like I don't, I always know who you are. In my heart. Sometimes my mind stumbles trying to put names with faces, but I do know you, ma fleur. I know."
Gretchen tried to hold back her tears, but it had been so long since she'd talked to her grandmother. Her real grandmother, the one who'd always been full of life and whose mind had always been sharp.
"Oh, please, don't cry. We all must bloom, then fade, each in our own time and way. We live, we love, we move on. It's life's cycle, and while it may sometimes seem cruel, it's really not. Remember I love you. Always. And cherish that." Gram, too, was crying now. She took several tissues, keeping some for herself and handing the rest to Gretchen. "Go to my bureau, please. Pull out the top middle drawer and bring it to me."
Gretchen wiped her eyes and honored the unusual request without question. She held the small accessories-filled drawer in front of Gram, who rifled through the contents for a moment. "Ah! Here it is," she said, pulling out a neatly folded, but very tattered, rag of a scarf from beneath an assortment of handkerchiefs. "Put that away and then come back. I have something for you."
Gretchen did as her grandmother asked, returning to find a folded piece of paper waiting for her on the chair.
"That's for you."
"What is it?" Gretchen asked, picking it up and sitting down, noticing her grandmother had spread the faded black scarf across her lap.
"It's a map of Brevard's cemetery."
"Why do you have a map of that?"
"So I would never forget where he was."
Gretchen unfolded the paper and studied the crude drawing. A single row of straight lines topped with inverted Vs, which she assumed were trees, formed a semi-circle at the top of the page. Below that were several rows of small Ts, which she assumed were crosses. Behind the first tree on the left side of the page was an X with the number eight behind it. Another X appeared in front of the last tree on the right, this time with the number five in front of it. The Xs looked like something one might see on a pirate's map, but Gretchen somehow didn't think they marked the spot of buried treasure.
"What is this, Gram?"
"The map of Mathieu's graves."
"He has more than one?"
"Unfortunately. And that's why I need you to go to France. You must bury his head with his body so that his soul can finally rest in peace."
Thinking she'd misunderstood her grandmother, Gretchen said, "Come again, Gram?"
"You've always thought I left France because my family died, but that wasn't exactly true."
"They were alive?"
Thunder rumbled and a bright flash from lightning chased shadows in the dark room.
"Yes, but to me they were dead. You see, I loved someone else before your grandfather. I was supposed to marry that other man. But they killed him."
"Who? Your family?" Gretchen asked, growing more confused by the second.
Gram nodded. "Them. The village. Rumors. Legends. They thought he was a loup-garou because they were too foolish to question such nonsense. They let their fears control their senses, and an innocent man died."
"Oui. Mathieu. They chopped off his head, right there in the middle of the square for everyone to see. Then they buried his head and body in separate graves without marking either one."
"What? Why would they do that, Gram?"
"I told you. Because they were ignorant and superstitious and they thought Mathieu was a loup-garou. But he wasn't. He was a gentle, compassionate man, not a monster. He was no more a werewolf than he was capable of killing those men." Chapter Two
"A werewolf? Come on, Gram. You can't be serious.
But that's exactly what Gram had been on that hot July day. Now, almost two months later, Gretchen sat alone in her office trying to revise one of Bernard's speeches. With the primary a week away, she had a ton of work to do. Instead of concentrating on what she needed to, however, she was doing what she did a lot of lately: thinking about what her grandmother had told her. And what she had agreed to do.
"Even then it seemed ridiculous," Gram had said. In Gretchen's opinion, it all sounded ridiculous. Impossible. Pure fantasy. Maybe even bordering on lunacy. But Gram believed. For her sake, Gretchen had listened, trying to keep an open mind as Gram had continued.
"Not because I didn't believe in werewolves. I did. It was what I was raised with. What was ridiculous was that they believed Mathieu was one."
"Wait. Back up a second, Gram. What exactly do you mean when you say 'raised with'? You don't mean you actually grew up with werewolves, do you?"
"No. Not raised with them, just the idea of them. Understand, the village I grew up in was nestled in the hills of the Morvan, a place over-flowing with century-old legends. Superstitions were as natural as the rising and setting of the sun. The Gauls settled there first. They were the ones who named it the 'Morvan' because in Celtic it means 'black mountain'. Which it is. It's dark and brooding. A land of druids, myths, and strange happenings. For centuries, only wild animals and robbers dared roam those hills. In fact, there's a saying that goes, 'No good wind and no good people ever came out of the Morvan.' It was something I'd heard my whole life, but had never paid any mind to...until they killed my Mathieu."
Gram had paused and gazed thoughtfully into Gretchen's eyes.
"But I'm sure, like everywhere else, times have changed there, too. I hope its beauty hasn't changed. It was its untamed--untamable--ruggedness that was the Morvan's true mystique. If that's the same, maybe you'll at least enjoy that much of your trip."
"Wait, wait, wait. Slow down, Gram. I promised you I'd go, and I will, but you've really caught me off-guard. I mean, here we're supposed to be celebrating your birthday, our birthdays, but instead of exchanging presents, we're unlocking a skeleton-filled closet. Or, should I say, werewolf-filled? And on top of that, you're not only telling me you believe in werewolves, you're suggesting I should, too?"
"No!" Gretchen said, appalled. "Except in movies. Other than that, they're just make-believe, a figment of someone's twisted imagination."
"Maybe," Gram said, her tone very serious. "But all stories come from some amount of truth. When I was growing up, we didn't have monster movies. We had folklore. Tales from other villages--nearby villages, mind you--that had been terrorized by men who believed themselves to be half-man, half-beast. Now, I'll admit that most of the stories were very old, handed down generation after generation, and I'm sure little exaggerations were added in here and there, but you have to understand that the wolf was always a beast the French feared. Maybe those men who believed themselves to be half-animal, half-human were simply insane. But," she paused, "maybe it was something else."
"So, what happened with Mathieu? Why'd they think he was a werewolf?"
"He went to war."
"What? I thought you had to get bitten on a full moon or something?"
Gram shrugged. "I don't know about that. Like I said, Mathieu wasn't one. But the war changed him just the same. He came back a different person."
"Okay," Gretchen had said, rubbing her eyes in much the same way she was currently doing as she thought about the conversation all over again. "Assuming there are such things as werewolves--which I'm not--and assuming a bite could transform a person--again, which I'm not--couldn't he have been bitten while he was away fighting and never told anybody? Even you?"
"No," Gram said, shaking her head, her eyes sad. "He told me what happened. And he was bitten all right, but it was not wolf's teeth that marred his soul. It was the Great War's teeth. The bullets. The bombs. The trenches. The death. That's what changed him, ma fleur. A werewolf he most surely was not.
"And I'm not saying that just because I loved him. Still do. Even though he's been dead almost eighty years, my heart still aches for him. Don't misunderstand, your grandfather and I shared love too, but it was different. Eduardo was good to me in a responsible sort of way. He supported the children and me, provided abundantly for us in fact, but as for touching the sacred bond between man and woman like Mathieu and I shared? No, there was not that."
"I thought you loved Grandpa? You were so sad when he died."
"Well, of course, I loved him. And, of course, I was sad when he died. I wouldn't have stayed with him for sixty-seven years if there weren't something between us. It just wasn't the same kind of love." She paused and smiled at Gretchen. "You've still not been touched by love like that, have you?"
"Obviously not. I'm still single."
"Marriage doesn't have anything to do with it. I was just a girl when I devoted my heart and soul to Mathieu. We were fourteen when the war started, sixteen when he left to fight, but I knew long before that that Mathieu was my true love. When he was gone, those were the hardest years of my life. Harder than coming to America, not being able to speak the language, not knowing how I was going to survive. Harder than the Depression. Harder than losing Ernesto in World War II, and then Marguerite in '69. And that was very hard, believe you me, saying goodbye to two children before their time. All of those were hard times, but they were nothing compared to the torment I went through those two years Mathieu was away fighting. And it wasn't hard because everything--money, food, everything--was scarce. It was hard because I spent everyday fearing that word would come saying he was gone forever."
She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths before she continued.
"But, the best day of my life was when he came home. Not in a coffin, and not in pieces like so many others, but alive. Except, he was injured. Emotionally, of course, he was scarred for life, but he'd been shot, as well. His trench had taken an assault first by gunfire, then by bombs. Thankfully, God had heard my every prayer, because the bomb that hit his trench didn't explode properly.
"That happened right at the end of the war. In fact, he was recovering in a field hospital when the cease-fire was called. When he was well enough, he returned home to Brevard. To me. But, like I said, he had changed. Of course he had. He'd seen the horrors of war. After living two years in the trenches and watching many good men die, men who had become his friends, how could he not? Before the war, he'd never worried about the future or what it might hold. But when he came home, he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. There was always a great sadness with him. Even when he laughed, which wasn't very often, that sadness stayed in his eyes. However, his love for me survived the war, too. He wanted us to be married as soon as possible."
"So, what happened? If you loved him so much, why didn't you marry him right away?"
Gram frowned. "Because he wanted to leave Brevard. He didn't want to go back to working for his uncle like he had before the war. But I didn't want to leave my family behind. I thought things might change. That his uncle might change, that he might admit he was glad Mathieu came home alive. But things only got worse. His uncle got...meaner. He cursed even more the day Mathieu's parents had died. Like old Rachet was really put out by accepting the responsibility of raising Mathieu. The only reason he took him in at all was because he knew that one day the boy would grow into a man capable of helping in the bakery."
A heavy sadness filled Gram's voice.
"I killed Mathieu. With my selfishness. Because I asked him to wait, he had no choice but to go back to working for his uncle. They used their arms a lot, to carry the bags of flour, roll dough, lift loaves in and out of the oven, that sort of thing, but the arm Mathieu had taken the bullet in grew tired quickly, and it slowed him down. On top of that, the heat from the ovens irritated his skin. Which hadn't happened before the war. His uncle felt Mathieu was making excuses, and accused him of letting battle make him lazy."
"But didn't he understand that Mathieu had been injured?" Gretchen asked.
"Yes, of course, but it didn't matter. Mathieu had been sent home. Alive. In his mind, Mathieu should have been stronger for having survived, not weaker. He made Mathieu's life miserable, but all that did was strengthen Mathieu's resolve to leave." Gram's shoulders drooped. "I shouldn't have been so selfish. I should have just left with him. If we had gone, we would have missed the fire."
"I thought you said he was murdered?"
"He was. I didn't mean to imply he died in the fire...although, it cursed us just the same."
At this point, Gram had closed her eyes and sighed heavily. Gretchen had sensed how painful these memories were to her grandmother, and, hating to see her suffer, had said, "It's okay, Gram. Take your time. If you want, I can come back later and you can tell me the rest then."
Gram shook her head. "No, ma fleur. This needs to be told now. I don't know that I'll ever be this clear again, and it's important you hear the whole story. That way, what I'm asking you to do won't seem so crazy." After a few deep breaths, she continued.
"That whole day was terrible. It started in the morning when my mother asked me to go to the butcher. I picked up the sausages she wanted, but as I was leaving, Raoul, the butcher's son, cornered me behind the shop and told me how much he loved me. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before. He'd made similar advances and I always ignored him. But this time it was different. I can't explain why exactly, it just was. His plea for me to forget Mathieu and marry him was so desperate, so intense.... I don't know the word to describe the fire that burned in his eyes.
"He, too, had gone to the front. But where the war had humbled Mathieu, it soured Raoul's soul even more. And this time he wasn't accepting my refusal. 'What would Mathieu think of a girl who's been used? Not much I imagine,' he taunted as he tried to force himself on me. It was horrible. I didn't dare tell Mathieu. If he'd known what Raoul had tried to do, he would have killed him, and been the murderer they would later accuse him of being. No, that was a secret better kept to myself.
"However, I was going to tell Mariette. We had no secrets from each other. We shared everything. When I returned home, though, she was furious with me. For what, I did not know. We rarely argued, but after the men came back from the war, we seemed to fight all the time. After what had happened with Raoul, I was in no mood to put up with her. We had a terrible fight. We'd never fought like that before. Nor did we again.
"That night, I went to see Mathieu like I always did. We were sitting behind his uncle's shop, talking. Except, he wasn't himself. He was...frustrated. He begged me to elope with him then and there, no more waiting. I should have said yes, but...I couldn't leave my sister like that, with both of us being mad. So I said no. Again."
Gram's voice dropped even lower and her face grew very serious. She was reliving memories of a time and place long since departed, but judging from the look on her face, Gretchen could tell that her grandmother saw it as if it had just happened yesterday.
"They said lightning started the fire, but there were no clouds in the sky that night. I know I remember the stars and moon shining above us. I didn't imagine that. But no one would listen. Their only concern was putting it out. Mathieu risked his life trying to do so. He got burned. Not badly, just singed, but it did something to his skin. Changed it somehow. And that's why the fire cursed us. One day he's a hero, the next he's a villain."
Gram paused, then asked Gretchen, "What I want to know is, why would he have bothered saving lives if he'd had the chance right then and there to satisfy the horrible lust for death they accused him of having?"
Gretchen knew the question was rhetorical and waited. After a few moments, Gram started speaking again.
"It wasn't long after that that he started staying inside during the day, complaining that the sun stung his eyes and made his skin itch. He thought it might be a reaction to the gas from the war. He didn't know what that meant to others. Didn't know if he was contagious. So, being the decent man he was, he stayed away from me, and everyone else, in a self-imposed quarantine. He didn't even work with the dough anymore. The last thing he wanted was to harm anyone."
Gram paused again, this time to smile at Gretchen.
"You would have liked him, ma fleur. He was a wonderful man. Handsome, kind, and intelligent. But mostly thoughtful. He really never would have hurt anybody. Ever. But what did they know? They blamed him because they wanted something done, even if it was the wrong thing.
"I told you Brevard bordered the Morvan, a place full of legends and superstitions, and at one time robbers and wild animals also. Except, there was one animal that hadn't been seen for a long, long time. A wolf.
"Because the fire had damaged part of the woods, it was only natural that some of the animals ventured into our village looking for food. A farmer lost several chickens to what he first believed was a fox. But when a sheep, then a pig, and then a cow were all found torn to pieces, everyone knew that was not the doings of any fox. The rumors of wolves spread faster than the fire had.
"My own sister was the first to claim she'd actually seen one. One night she woke the whole house screaming about a scratching at the window. Said when she'd opened her eyes, she'd seen a wolf glaring in at us. The very next morning the town drunk was found dead. Someone--or some thing, as most people thought--had ripped his throat open. The most unfortunate thing about it was that he was found in the street not far from Mathieu's home."
"Why was that so unfortunate?"
Gram smiled ruefully. "Well, by that time the rumors about him had started, too. 'Have you heard about Mathieu and the sun? Says it burns if even one ray touches him.' 'I heard. Did you hear how old Rachet won't even feed Mathieu anymore? I asked about him the other day and Rachet told me he's starving, that's how he's doing. Lazy boy won't help, then he won't eat.' 'And then Monsieur Pilette's sheep is found in pieces. At night.' 'Don't forget Durand's cow and Cassell's pig. Also at night.' 'Do you think it's Mathieu? Because he's so hungry?' 'No! No man could be so savage.' 'What if he's no longer a man?' Silly stuff like that, but it never takes more than that, does it? The last thing my parents wanted was to have me mixed up in all of it. Which is understandable. They were looking out for their daughter's reputation. They didn't ask that I break up with him. Not then at least. All they wanted was a cooling off period. But I couldn't stay away. Whenever I had a chance, I'd sneak away to see him. Or I should say talk to him. I never saw more than his silhouette because he always stayed to the shadows. And one of the rumors was right. He was starving, so my visits brought more than just conversation.
"But that day he didn't want to talk. In fact, he said he didn't want to see me anymore. It was too dangerous...for both of us. He yelled hurtful, ugly things at me. Not about me, mind you, but it may as well have been. He was so angry, and his voice...something was wrong. It was different. I begged him to stop, to tell me what was wrong. He leaned forward, not directly into the sunlight, but out of the shadows enough so I could see him. I screamed. I couldn't help it. I wished I hadn't, especially when he said, 'There. That's what's wrong, Amelie. Now go away, woman, and leave me alone!' So, I did. I turned and ran. Something I never would have done had I known that would be the last time I ever spoke to him again."
"What did you see that made you scream?"
"Him. He looked like he hadn't shaved or combed in weeks. The hair on his face was almost as thick as the tangled mess of hair on his head. Even his neck and arms were covered so completely you couldn't see his skin. But his eyes...that was the worst. They were wild, and full of rage. Like a beasts'. Seeing him like that, it wasn't hard to understand how those ignorant people mistook him for a werewolf. But he wasn't. I know he wasn't..."
But the conviction in her voice did not hide the doubt clouding her eyes.
"There had to be some explanation. Other than that he was a werewolf. And I'll admit, some of it did look suspicious, especially when his uncle was murdered. But, to this day, I can't believe Mathieu killed him. No matter how strained their relationship, no matter what he might have turned into, he wasn't capable of something like that.
"But there was no convincing the others. They held a town meeting to discuss the status of the investigator who had been sent for after the town drunk's murder, but who had never arrived. Brevard was a tiny village with no major industry to speak of. Certainly no police. When it was obvious no one was coming to investigate our crimes, everyone agreed it was up to the village to mete out its own justice.
"The meeting was a rowdy affair, people shouting about being damned before they spent the rest of their lives cowering in their houses after dark while a monster roamed the streets. To my surprise, it was Mariette who offered the solution, and it is her words that are forever burned on my brain. 'We know where he hides during the day. Why not drag him from his lair?' No names were mentioned. They didn't have to be. Everyone knew to whom she was referring.
"And that bastard Raoul sat there beside her, looking so smug. He'd finally given up on me and had asked Mariette to marry him, and the little fool had agreed. I swear, he almost laughed when the whispers started.
"My own sister betrayed me that night. Her words were the knife that severed our bond, one I had believed was stronger than time. It was then that my father demanded I break off my engagement to Mathieu. He didn't know about the argument, or that it had been days since Mathieu and I had talked. I didn't dare tell anyone about that because I didn't dare add more fuel to their rumor-fire. Besides, I believed in my heart it would all work out, that the misunderstanding would get cleared up. But that wasn't the case. Instead, I found myself arguing with my father. Before that night I never would have dreamed of challenging one of his decisions, but I fought with him then for my right to stay engaged...even though I wasn't sure I still was."
A single tear trickled down Gram's cheek, but she ignored it.
"Ours had been such a happy household before that day. I never imagined they'd do what they did. That's why what happened was even worse, why the betrayal was even more devastating. They all plotted against me, their own blood!
"My mother and sister tried to keep me in the house when I heard the rest of the village marching in the street, shouting, 'Kill the monster! Death to him before death to us!' No matter how much I want to drown out the sound of their voices, voices that should have faded after all these years, I can't. I can still hear them screaming.
"And maybe that's why my mind suffers now, why I can't remember things that just happened moments before. Maybe it's my curse for not having done more then. It's my punishment to continually relive the past that haunts me.
"But I did try. I ran to the square. I pushed through the crowd. I watched in horror as they dragged Mathieu into the street, my own father among those holding his arms and legs. I saw Mathieu writhing in pain from the sun upon him, listened as he screeched for mercy.... And that's something else I have never forgotten. His screams. They've haunted my sleep, sometimes even my waking hours, ever since."
Gram wept uncontrollably for several seconds before she was able to catch her breath again and finish.
"I screamed for them to stop, to let him go, but my father pulled me away while the others tied Mathieu to a block. And then, in one horrible second that stretched longer than any natural second should, I watched the blade slice through Mathieu's neck, and listened to everything fall silent as his head tumbled into the dirt."
"They killed him? Just like that? Without a trial or any real proof of wrongdoing or anything?" Gretchen asked, horrified.
Gram nodded, sobbing hard, giving into her grief.
"But how could they do that, Gram? If that's how it really happened, that's murder no matter how you look at it. And no matter what they suspected him of being."
"I know, ma fleur. I know. And they knew it too. That's why they buried their secret beneath the Morvan moon where it would be forgotten. Forever."
"Why did they have to be so brutal about it? Why not just shoot him instead of chopping off his head?"
"You don't understand, ma fleur. The werewolf is a tricky breed. You grew up with notions of silver bullets killing werewolves, but that's not so. As difficult and dangerous as it may be, it's entirely possible to mortally wound a werewolf with nothing more than your bare hands...if you're both strong and brave enough. But even that might not be enough to keep him dead, and that's why they beheaded him."
"Okay, so why go through the trouble of digging two graves for him? Why not just toss him all into one pit?"
Gram had smiled. A compassionate smile that acknowledged her point still had not been made.
"One grave wouldn't have been sufficient, ma fleur. Not if Mathieu really was the monster they thought he was. You see, even with a severed head, they feared that to put all of him in the same hole left a chance the werewolf still might return to life."
Coming back to the present, Gretchen shuffled the papers on her desk and turned off her computer, knowing she was not going to make anymore progress on Bernard's speech tonight. She rubbed her eyes, frustrated that she couldn't stop thinking about what her grandmother had told her. Maybe if she'd been able to tell someone else, to share it, she wouldn't feel so burdened. Except, she'd promised she wouldn't say a word.
"I can't change what they destroyed that day," Gram had said. "No matter how much I wish I could, but there's one wrong I can fix. Through you, ma fleur. But you cannot tell anyone what you're going to do. Not a soul. Not your mother, or father, or Bernard. No one. Not even anyone when you get there. You must do this on your own. Entirely alone."
"Wait a second, Gram. Are you asking me what I think you're asking me?"
"What do you think I'm asking you?"
Gretchen had swallowed hard. "I think you want me to go and dig up Mathieu's bones and put him in one grave."
Gretchen felt sick. She loved her grandmother dearly, and, in normal circumstances, would do anything for her. But this...this was a little extreme, wasn't it? A little out of her league? Surely there were others better equipped to handle this type of situation?
"What if I contacted someone over there? Like an attorney or the police. Someone who could help me with the process of exhuming a grave."
"I could have done that myself years ago...if I wanted to put myself through that frustration. Besides being too difficult to explain, there'd be too many questions, and not nearly enough answers. Not sufficient ones at any rate. No, there is only one way to do it, and that's by yourself."
"You're still not understanding, ma fleur," Gram interrupted her. "Who can help you? There are no records of Mathieu's life. Or death. He ceased to exist when they killed him. If you had asked anyone in town the day after if they knew him, they would have looked you in the eye and said no one named Mathieu Rachet ever lived in Brevard. Don't you see? By not acknowledging his life, he never had one to come back to if he ever tried."
"Gram, I hear what you're saying, but if I explained the circumstances someone might understand--"
"Understanding is not the problem. In fact, that might be worse. If they still believe in the old ways, they'll understand all right. But not that you're trying to bring much needed peace to a man's soul. They'll believe you're trying to resurrect a monster."
Gretchen sighed. Gram's mind was obviously set. Could she refuse her grandmother? No. She could never live with herself if she did. Reluctantly, she said, "Okay, I'll do it your way. But you said the graves aren't marked. How am I supposed to find him?"
"The map. See those numbers? The five and the eight?"
Gretchen had looked at the drawing in her lap.
"I knew one day I'd go back and sent things straight, so I paced the distance and carved a small cross in the base of each tree that he's buried near. Find those, and you'll find his graves."
Returning once again to the present moment, Gretchen leaned back in her chair, stared at the stack of papers spilling out of her in-box, and sighed heavily. Getting to Brevard was easy. Digging up eighty-year-old bones and moving them around, unnoticed, wouldn't be. And then there was the matter of finding the time to go. Somehow, though, Gretchen would have to hurry up and find it. Two months had already passed. The very earliest she'd be able to get away, however, would be in a week, after the primary.
Plus, did Gretchen fully believe her grandmother? She still couldn't quite believe that people would kill a man just because they thought he was a werewolf. Then again, the United States had had its witch trials, so...
The phone rang. She glanced at her clock, wondering who would be calling her at work so late.
"Danforth and Lauterbach. Gretchen speaking."
"Is this Gretchen Lauterbach?" an unfamiliar voice asked.
"Yes. How can I help you?"
"Gretchen, it's Jack Beardsley. Rachel's attorney."
"Oh, Jack! It's good to hear from you. How's Rachel?"
"Well, um...I'm sorry for calling you at work. I tried your home number first, but when there was no answer, I took a chance on the office."
"Bernard's campaign is keeping me very busy, but I'll spare you the complaints. What can I do for you, Jack? Is there anything Rachel needs?"
"I'm afraid I have some bad news."
"What kind of bad news?" she asked, her stomach suddenly tight.
"I'm sorry for telling you like this, but this is how she wanted it. You're the first one she wanted me to call."
"What are you talking about? What's happened?"
"There's no easy way to say this....Rachel passed away over the weekend, Gretchen."
He kept speaking, but the rest of his words faded into a garbled, undecipherable foreign language. What did he mean Rachel had passed away? There must be some mistake! She couldn't have. Not like this. Not without Gretchen being able to say goodbye! Not without a reconciliation with their mother! Thinking of that...
"Have you called my mother yet?" Gretchen asked, interrupting Jack mid-sentence.
"No. Rachel left specific instructions that I was to contact only you and Bernard."
"But Mother has to be notified, too--"
This time it was Jack's turn to cut her off. "I agree. But that's not what my cli--that's not what Rachel charged me to do."
The essence of his words and what he was implying finally hit her.
"You make it sound like she had this prearranged. Like she knew she was dying."
"She did." He hesitated. "She had cancer, Gretchen. She found out how advanced it was before she went home for the party. There wasn't a lot the doctors could do for her."
"And she never told us?" Gretchen was appalled. Her sister had suffered alone, and why? Because she'd had a spat five years ago with their mother? Nothing should have been that rotten between them to justify her dying all by herself. Maybe they could have helped her. Maybe they could have saved her!
"She didn't want a reconciliation with the family based on pity, Gretchen," Jack explained, as if he had read Gretchen's unspoken protests.
Gretchen was sobbing so hard she shook. "Why couldn't she have at least told me? Or Bernie? She didn't have to go through it all by herself!"
"I know," Jack agreed. "But if you had known, you would have put pressure on your mother to drop her lance and make peace. Rachel didn't want that."
Gretchen winced at the truth of his words. "What do I need to do to get her body back here?"
"There is no body, Gretchen."
"What do you mean? Don't tell me she took care of that herself, too?"
His silence confirmed she had. Gretchen burst into a fresh round of tears.
"I'm sorry, Gretchen. She had to take care of everything before...well, before she left for her final voyage. That's how she referred to it."
"No!" Gretchen cried. "Dammit! What are we supposed to do then? Just accept that she's gone?"
"I'm sorry, Gretchen. I know what shocking news I've just given you, and how much you've had to take in. She wanted you to have some things. I have a package that I'm going to overnight to you. Where do you want me to send it?"
Gretchen didn't know what to say. She wanted to scream. This is what she gets upon her sister's death, a phone call and some legal documents sent via express carrier? She would have preferred to say goodbye. "Send it here. To the office," she finally mumbled.
They exchanged goodbyes, then Gretchen dropped her head onto her hands and bawled uncontrollably until all of her tears were spent. When she was done, she knew what she had to do. She couldn't save Rachel, nor was she looking forward to facing her mother, but she could help Gram. She flipped through her Rolodex until she came to her travel agent's card. She dialed the number and began making preparations for her trip to France.