Celia turned into the driveway of her father's home and parked in front of the door. She debated honking, but knew her father and sister would never let her hear the end of it. Getting out of the car, she walked slowly up the steps to the door and stood there, staring at it. 'How have we come to this?' she asked herself, looking up at the house in front of her. 'At one time, we were the most wealthy family in north Chicago. And now I have to collect my squandering family to attend a meeting with a financial planner who will most likely tell us that after we sell the house -- and everything else -- we'll have to make do with very little.' She laughed to herself. 'At least I know how to do that already,' she thought. 'College was good for something after all.'
She walked in the front door and called out, "Father! Claudia! We need to go!"
There was no answer.
She walked down the hall to the dining room, where she found her father and sister sitting at the table surrounded by glossy pieces of paper. "What are you doing? Didn't you hear me? We need to be that the financial planner's office in fifteen minutes."
Henry ignored her and shoved a brochure over to Claudia. "Have you seen this? It looks like it has an indoor pool!"
"Oo," Claudia squealed. "It even has a dog walk in the back! It looks divine. We should definitely tell Susan we want to see that one."
"Are you looking at homes?" Celia asked in spite of herself. "I thought you were going to let Aunt May help you with that."
"Oh, Celia, when did you get here?" her father asked, and looked up at her in surprise. "Of course we're looking for a new house. Where else do you think we're going to live? In an apartment?"
"Actually, Dad, yes."
"Oh my, look at the time." Henry glanced at his bare wrist. "We must be going. And I thought I told you to call me Henry. 'Dad' is so outdated."
"Yes, Henry," Celia sighed. "Are we taking my car or yours?"
Claudia shuddered. "I am not riding in that thing you call a car," she said. "We'll take Daddy's. It's much better with my complexion."
"Of course we will, Claudia," Henry said, patting her hand. It looked to Celia like he was petting his french poodle. "I don't want to ride in your sister's car either."
Celia sat in the back seat on the way to the meeting. She knew things shouldn't bother her after all this time, but why did her father -- well, Henry -- treat Claudia and Cassie like members of the family, while he seemed to see her as some sort of interloper come to ruin all their fun? It wasn't her fault they were in this mess; no matter how many times Aunt May had told them to economize, they had spent her father's fortune on ridiculous things like spa vacations for the dogs and fancy cars to match their new clothes. 'At least I'm not going to have to live with them in their new lifestyle,' she thought wryly. 'Although that could be entertaining on its own.'
When they arrived, Celia bought a newspaper and followed the others into the office. She sat in a chair near the window far from Henry ("You'll get too much sun over there, Celia") and flipped open her cell phone. There was already a message from her aunt.
Glad to see you made it with the posse.
Celia smiled. How bad is it?
Sell everything. Move into apartment. Eat generic food.
Celia smiled and looked up. Aunt May raised a finger in hello while seeming to talk to Henry. Some things never changed. Celia put the phone away and scanned the front page of the Tribune. Another homicide; corruption in city government. 'Good old Chicago,' she thought fondly. 'I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.' She opened the paper to the third page out of habit, and looked for Hank Conner's columnist before she remembered that he'd retired the week before. But there was something already in the usual spot, something about a new columnist who'd just moved to the big city. Her eyes traveled up to the top of the page to the byline. Thomas Elliot.
The paper slipped through her fingers and landed on the floor in a soft heap. Thomas Elliot? Tom? Her mind raced back to the last time she had seen him.
It was seven years ago, and they were in his car, an old, beat-up thing they called the Hulk. He was staring straight out the windshield, not looking at her.
"What do you mean, you can't marry me?"
Celia swallowed, nervous. "We're just too young."
"Who said that, you or your aunt?"
She paused. "Me."
"Liar." He turned his head so fast she could almost hear it crick. "She said it, and then she made you believe it."
"It's not like that," she plead. "You don't understand. I do love you. It's just --"
"Then let's get married. Tonight. We can go off to college next week like we planned, and by the time they find us it'll be too late."
Celia looked down at her hands, knuckles white around the ring he'd given her only three days before. "I can't."
Suddenly Tom's hands were on her shoulders. "I thought you said you loved me."
Celia looked up at him and saw the panic in his expression. "I do love you," she whispered. "But we're so young. Maybe we should wait a few years, give us some time to get established. Then we'll be more ready." Aunt May's voice rang in her ears. 'And then you'll have come to your senses.'
"Please, Celia," Tom begged. His fingers tightened almost painfully on her arms. "Don't do this to me. Don't do this to us. If I let you go now, you'll find someone else and I'll never see you again."
Celia's throat was dry, but she couldn't stop from swallowing. This was more painful than she had imagined; it was more painful, almost, than when her mother had died. "Maybe it's better that way." She took his hand off her arm and placed the ring into it, closing his fingers. "I'll always love you, Tom. Never forget that."
And then she left the car and watched as the Hulk sped as fast as its antiquated engine allowed down the street and out of her life forever.
She blinked and looked around. She had almost forgotten where she was.
"Have you been paying attention to anything I've been talking about?"
Glancing at Aunt May, she said the first thing that came to her mind. "Sell everything. Move into apartment. Eat generic food."
May turned her laugh into a cough fairly well, and Henry looked away, mollified that she had been paying attention after all. Celia bent over and picked up the paper. There was a picture above the byline. It was an older version of the man she had said goodbye to that night seven years ago. Thomas Elliot.
Henry was uncharacteristically quiet on the way back to the house. He drove slowly and took the side roads, looking at the passing houses with wistful regret. Celia looked out the window with him and watched the homes of her former friends pass by. There were many empty ones.
"It just doesn't feel right, leaving." Henry's voice sounded almost regretful.
"What doesn't feel right?" Celia asked, curious. Henry didn't usually express feelings other than satisfaction and pride. She doubted that he had any others to express.
"Celia? Have you been here the entire time? I thought you left with May."
"No, Henry. Claudia went with May. They'll meet us back at the house." She paused. "What doesn't feel right?"
Henry sighed, a great, heavy, why-do-these-things-always-happen-to-me sort of sigh. "Leaving all our things behind. I like my things. And what will the neighbors think, with us gone? The neighborhood won't be the same."
Celia rolled her eyes. The neighbors had their own houses foreclosed on months ago. "I doubt anyone will notice, Henry. You aren't all that sociable."
"True," he replied. "What with all the staff leaving us, we haven't been able to give parties like we used to."
Celia ignored that comment. "Where are you thinking of living?"
Shrugging, Henry pulled into the driveway. "Somewhere fashionable, of course. We're to see a real estate agent tomorrow. I'm sure we'll find something suitable."
'I highly doubt that, given your allowance,' Celia thought. "I suppose I'd better stay with May until I find something for myself, then."
"I suppose," he said absently. "Or you could stay with Claudia and Michael. I'm sure they'd take you." He stopped the car at the top of the driveway and got out, leaving Celia to turn off the car.
She didn't doubt that Cassie would want her to stay with them; ever since her marriage to Michael three years before, Cassie had been begging her to visit. She just didn't know if she could stand several weeks of Michael's sisters living two flights down.
May and Claudia drove up as she was starting up the walk toward the door. She paused as Claudia brushed past her. May was a few steps behind, and held her outside.
"What happened?" May asked. "You turned white as a sheet and then you spaced out for a minute back there. Was the paper particularly bad today?"
"No," Celia said quickly. "I was just ... thinking." She did not want to think about Tom Elliot. Not now, with his picture in the paper she held under her arm. "What are we going to do with Henry and Claudia? You know they'll never live by the terms the financial planner set for them. Where are they going to live?"
"You leave that to me, dear." May patted her on the arm. "I'll go with them tomorrow to look at apartments -- and yes, I'll make sure they only look at things they can afford."
"Maybe I should come with you."
"No, no. Your father would be surprised at your presence every time you got out of the car. No, you had better stay here and get ready."
"Ready for what?" Celia started to feel the old panic. Surely, with all that was going on, May wouldn't think to ...
"Why, your date, darling. Didn't I tell you? I have the most wonderful neighbor boy who's just your age. He's coming by my house to pick you up tomorrow night at seven."
'Oh, for the love of Pete,' Celia thought. 'How can a woman be so with it in so many ways and then turn around and act prehistoric?' "May. Please. I don't have time for blind dates. I have to get the furnishings ready for auction by Friday."
"Oh, come now," May smiled. She brushed an invisible piece of lint off her suit coat. "It'll just take a few hours. And Maurice is such a nice boy. You can take him to that Mexican restaurant you like so much. Now, what are you going to do once the house is empty? You know you're always welcome to stay with me."
Celia knew exactly what would happen if she lived with May. She'd never find a job ("You don't have to work, darling. Let me find you a nice rich boy to take care of you") and she would spend the rest of her life going on blind date after blind date. "No," she said quickly. "I think I'll bunk up with Cassie for a while, until I can get a job."
"You don't have to -- "
"Yes, I do," Celia said. "I appreciate the offer, and I'll go out with Maurice, but I am going to stay independent."
May opened her mouth as though to protest but evidently thought better of it. "Well, if you ever need me, you know where to find me," she said finally. "I have Oscar lined up for you on Thursday, so I'll be in touch." And with that she glided up the stairs, leaving Celia behind her.
Celia stared after her aunt. 'This is getting ridiculous,' she thought. 'If I go on any more blind dates I think I'll scream.' She knew, though, that very little would stop May once she had set her mind on something. It couldn't take too much out of her to grin and bear it, ... right?
Fortunately Cassie was thrilled with the idea of Celia living with her, even on a temporary basis. "I'm so excited!" she squealed. "Wait until I tell Michael. He'll be so glad!"
Celia smiled and tucked the phone back under her ear. She had been going through the things in the library, setting a few books and pictures aside to place in storage to wait until she found a new apartment. "How is Mick?"
"He's great. He just got a promotion, and we're both thrilled. Right now he's in Toronto on business, but I can call him right away and tell him your good news."
"Thanks, Cass. I appreciate it. I won't have a lot of time, though; I need to find a job and then an apartment."
"A job?" Cassie sounded confused. "What do you need a job for? Fuller girls don't work."
"Well, this one will. I have an interview next week at the library where Jen works, and she thinks it shouldn't be a problem. But I can hang out with you until things are settled. Will that be all right?"
"I guess," Cassie replied slowly, and perked up. "We'll have such a fun time. I've been wanting someone to go shopping with besides Lauren and Rachel." Michael's sisters lived in the same complex as Cassie, and while they got along, the Tanner sisters didn't think too highly of Cassie and it showed. Celia knew they thought Michael could have chosen a more sensible wife.
"Sounds fun. I'll see you on Saturday, then. Did you want to come to the house and help with the auction? You might find something of mother's you want to keep before it all sells."
"No, that's all right. I got everything I wanted when we got married. Oh, that's the other line. See you soon!" And the line went dead.
Celia sighed. It looked like once again she would be taking care of business for the Fuller estate. At least May would keep Henry and Claudia away for the weekend, looking for apartments (or, as Henry called them, alternate living arrangements). As long as she could get through the latest blind date, she'd be all right.
She opened up the newspaper to the third page. There he was. She sat in her mother's old chair and settled in to read. He was going over his career, she assumed to assure his new readership that he was qualified to talk about life in Chicago in a competent manner. He had gone to Northwestern (thank goodness she'd had the good sense to go to school out of state) and had received his master's in journalism. He'd written for a few papers in smaller towns before
"I landed this gig. It's strange to be back in the city you grew up in. So much has stayed the same, and yet so much has changed. It's always hard to return to a place that both made and broke you. Some things you just have to let go. The last day I was in Chicago before leaving for college was the day my fiancée broke our engagement off. I rather hope she's moved to the other side of the universe and our paths will never cross again. Knowing my luck, she lives down the street and I'll see her tomorrow at the grocery store.
"Then again, with my luck, she married the guy who lives in the house next door."