"You've got to be kidding."
I stared at Bob – or, rather, now that I was no longer his employee, Uncle Bob -- and tried to figure out if I was having a bad dream. He hadn't just fired me, had he? Can you fire your own niece and still expect to be invited to Sunday dinner? I'd have to ask Mom about that.
"I'm sorry, Katie, but you've seen how bad the real estate market is. You know that I've been thinking about retiring for a long time now, and when I found a buyer for the building it seemed like a good time to shut down the business. Who knows when another sap would fall into my lap?"
He was right, of course. The real estate business that he'd launched before I was born had been steadily losing agents for a while now, until finally it was just the two of us – Bob showing houses and me doing everything else. "That's okay," I said as cheerfully as I could. "I'll miss you when you're off in Arizona sunning yourself with all the other old farts down there."
"Don't let your aunt know you called her that." Bob smiled apologetically and sat down in the only chair in the reception area. "She's been looking forward to retirement since we got rid of the kids."
I laughed in spite of myself. "You may have mentioned that a few times over the years. How long do I have before you close the door for the last time?"
His eyes slid away guiltily. "Not very long, I'm afraid."
I leaned forward, my hands gripping the edges of the desk. "How long, Uncle?"
Bob looked up at the ceiling. "About two hours."
I just shook my head at him. It was a wonder he ever sold a house.
"The guy called me this morning wanting to know if he could take possession tonight. Something about impressing his mother. Or maybe it was his girlfriend. Anyway, since we're in between projects at the moment . . . " He got that dreamy expression that always meant he'd just pulled a good deal.
After he ambled back to his desk I sank back in my chair and tried to think. I'd been working for Bob since I graduated from college three years before, and I'd only done that because I couldn't find another job. Well, the fact that I'd majored in General Studies might have had something to do with that, but who's keeping track?
As I thought about my current job options (there weren't any; after all, Vincennes, Indiana wasn't exactly a booming metropolis, despite what my father said) I glanced at the book on my desk and flipped through it idly. What would Elizabeth Bennet do in my situation?
Well, actually, she'd never find herself in this position, a little voice in my mind said smugly. She'd probably have known what she wanted to do with her life from the moment she could talk. And on the off-chance that she didn't, she certainly would have had it all figured out by the time she finished high school. I put the book back on my desk and started packing my belongings in the box Bob had thoughtfully left for me before he'd disappeared. I made sure to place my dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice on top – just in case I needed it.
I thought about Elizabeth Bennet on my way home that afternoon. I'd tried to major in English so I'd have a legitimate reason to read my favorite book, but unfortunately the English department wasn't centered around Jane Austen. Who thought it was a good idea for English majors to read books that hadn't even been written in English, anyway? I couldn't see myself reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or (shudder) Kafka, so I changed my major, much to my parents' chagrin. I still read Pride and Prejudice, though. A lot. And usually when I was supposed to be doing something else.
When I pulled into the driveway of my parents' house my brother Oliver was waiting for me in the front yard. He looked very serious, and it seemed strange on his usually cheery face. "Hey, Katie," he said, walking over to help me with the box I'd stuffed in the trunk. "Uncle Bob called an hour ago. I'm sorry you got fired."
I grabbed my book out of the box before he could carry it away and followed him toward the door. "I didn't get fired; Uncle Bob went out of business. There's a big difference. And I probably should have seen it coming," I said morosely. "He stopped selling houses a few years ago and focused on the buyers instead. When the last family closed on their home a few weeks ago there was really not a whole lot to do."
"Well, I'm still sorry. What're you going to do now?"
"She's going to go up to her room and read her precious book." Josie peered out of the front door and laughed when she saw my expression. "Come on, you know you do that when something happens to you. You read that stupid thing for three months straight the first time you couldn't find a job. And now you'll do it again. How does it feel to be fired by your own family?"
I scowled at her and tried to hide the book in my bag. "I didn't get fired," I said a little louder than I'd planned. "Bob shut down the agency." When Josie was born they told me that she'd be my very best friend before I knew it, but that was fourteen years ago. Obviously that only applies when the younger sister isn't eleven years your junior – and an accident to begin with.
Josie smirked at me. "So you were made redundant? That's even better."
She stuck out her tongue when the clod of dirt I threw at her missed. "Very ladylike," I told her. "Are Mom and Dad home?"
"They're in the kitchen, talking about you." She looked at me appraisingly. "I thought you'd be a lot more upset about being fired," she said, staring at me critically. "Your eyes aren't even red. Haven't you been crying at all?"
"Go away, Josie."
The pout on her face didn't affect me at all. "I'll tell Mom you were mean to me," she whined, but when Oliver looked at her warningly she turned on her toes and waltzed back inside, letting the screen door slap shut behind her.
I sat on the porch steps and leaned back to look up at the trees surrounding our house. Oliver put the box next to the front door and sat next to me. It was quiet for a long time.
"You seem awfully serious for a change," I said finally when it was obvious he was just going to sit there. "What's up with you? I know you're devastated about my job – " he snorted – "but that's no reason for you to be so down in the dumps."
"You'll find another job. Maybe even one where the boss doesn't ask you to pick up his dry cleaning on the weekends."
I smiled up at the trees. There were certain things about working for Uncle Bob that I wouldn't miss.
"I'm touched that you're so concerned about me," I told him, leaning farther back onto the porch, "but something else is wrong. Usually you're bouncing off the walls or pulling some stupid prank. Did your reputation get to Butler before you did, and they decided you were too big a risk to allow into their MBA program?"
"Very funny. I'll have you know that nothing I've ever done has landed me in jail. Annoyed a few people, maybe, but nothing illegal."
"The only reason Mom and Dad never had to bail you out of prison was because you always managed to talk yourself out of trouble."
He shrugged, and I could hear the smugness in his voice. "When you're good, you're good," he conceded. "But really, I heard today that my housing plans have fallen through."
Oliver sighed heavily. "The building burned down last night."
"Oh. That's bad."
"You got that right."
I watched the wind ruffle his blonde hair. No matter what he did with it, it always stuck straight up. Not even the wind could make it lie flat for long. "Well, I guess I'd better come up with something," he said finally, getting to his feet. "School starts next week, and unless I want to commute every day I'll need to figure out a plan. Who knows? The answer to both our problems could be right around the corner."
I'd just opened my mouth to tell him I thought he was being overly optimistic when the sound of tires screeching around a corner made me look up. A yellow car was careening toward our driveway. It didn't slow down until it was ten feet away, and then the car bounced over the curb and skidded to a halt.
"Did you know George and Bea were coming tonight?" I asked Oliver as a beaming couple emerged from the dust. They were both dressed in yellow shirts, and Bea had obviously just had her hair done to match the car. It was like seeing the Man in the Yellow Hat after he'd been dipped in butter – a strange thing, since their last name was Butterworth.
"They're here!" Josie came barreling down the steps, narrowly missing my hand, before she flung herself at Bea. "Uncle George! Aunt Bea! I thought you'd never get here!"
Bea laughed and kissed Josie on the cheek. "We left right after we called your folks," George said from behind his wife. "I wanted to take the car out one last time before we left so I'd have something to remember while we're in the wilds of Japan." He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped at the dust settling on the hood.
"They have cars in Japan, George," Oliver pointed out, grinning for the first time that afternoon.
"Just because I'm not really your uncle doesn't mean you can sass me back, boy," George said, jabbing Oliver in the ribs. "Walk my poor old bones up the stairs and tell me about your studies. I thought about being a businessman myself at one point."
Josie looked pointedly at Bea. "Didn't you tell me there would be something in the back seat for me?" she asked, craning her neck to look around Bea's shoulder.
"Is that why we got such a warm welcome? Go ahead, it's in there." Josie squealed and darted around the car, leaving me to walk with Bea toward the house in relative peace.
"I read that your namesake's been in some trouble recently," Bea told me after she'd put her arm through mine. "Something about crazy parties and shifty boys."
I rolled my eyes at her and wished, not for the first time, that my parents had named me anything but Katie. "If we didn't share a name no one would compare us," I pointed out. "Even if we have the same birthday and look slightly alike."
"That's probably true," she agreed complacently, "but there are two Katie Emburys in Indiana, and the other one happens to be the Senator's flighty daughter. I'd tell you to change your name but I'm pretty sure you like the one you've got, even though you complain about it."
She was right, of course. I'd been trying to think of alternate names since I first became aware that there was another, more famous version of myself out there, but nothing clicked. (I had, of course, considered Elizabeth Jane Embury, but the fallout from my sister and the rest of the Austen-reading crowd may be a bit much. Still, it was tempting . . .)
"Maybe I'll color my hair," I said thoughtfully as we walked into the house. "Then at least we won't look so similar."
"That would be a good idea if the other Katie didn't change her hair every other week," Mom pointed out as she came forward to hug us. "Isn't the latest color blonde, Bea?"
"How do you know that?" Mom never read the tabloids. She didn't even watch television all that much – except for criminal Thursdays.
"Bea keeps me informed." She winked wickedly at her best friend. "I like to know what I'm missing. Now, what's this about Bob shutting down the agency? I thought he was going to wait another year."
Bea looked between us, one eyebrow raised. I'd been trying to train my own eyebrow to do that for years, with no luck. "Did you lose your job today, honey?"
Wrenching my gaze away from her lone eyebrow still hovering in the middle of her forehead, I nodded dejectedly. "'Fraid so."
Bea got a delighted smile on her face. "But that's the best thing I've heard all day!" she cried, clapping her hands like a two-year-old. "Just wait 'til I tell George. He'll be thrilled."
I stared at her, wondering if she'd had too much caffeine on their trip here. "I think you need to lie down," Mom said after a second, and started steering her into the living room. "The sun must have gotten to you again."
Bea just shook her off and headed for the kitchen. "We'll tell you our plans over dinner," she called over her shoulder happily. "Fancy that! Katie lost her job today, of all days!"
Mom and I just stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what had just happened. "I don't get it," I said finally. "I know you've known her since kindergarten, Mom, but really. Should she be allowed to go to a foreign country and teach English to those poor unsuspecting souls? Heaven only knows what she might teach them to say."
Mom shook herself slightly and focused on me. "In all our years together, I've come to understand one thing," she said firmly. "Bea's head is screwed on straighter than she lets on. If she acts strangely, she usually has a reason for it." With that she left me in the hallway to see to dinner.
I watched Bea all through the meal, wondering if Mom was right about her. She sat next to Josie, who scowled every time Bea spoke to her. That was due, I was pretty sure, to the fact that the "present" they'd brought her had turned out to be a Barbie doll. The look on Josie's face when she'd stomped into the house had been priceless – as had Bea's response. "I could have sworn you were the right age for this," she'd stated, looking at Josie critically. "After all, you act the part of the baby of the family to perfection." That had made Josie stop whining, although she sent dark looks in our guests' direction whenever she thought they weren't looking.
It wasn't until everyone had pushed their empty plates back before George and Bea got to business. "I'm sure you're wondering what we're doing here with such short notice," George began, "but we find ourselves in a bit of a bind and were wondering if you could help us out."
"Anything," Dad said. "You know we'll do whatever we can to help."
George smiled at him. "I know you would, Ted, and Sally, you too. But what we really need is your children's help."
Josie looked mutinous, but Oliver and I snapped to attention. What could an unemployed girl and her college-student brother possibly have that the Butterworths needed?
"You know, of course, that Bea and I head for Japan in a few days," George went on. "And that we're planning on staying there for a year or so. Well, we thought we had someone lined up to take care of the house, but we found out this morning that she's decided to become an actress and is moving to Hollywood to wait for her big break."
Oliver and I glanced at each other. Was he thinking what I was?
"So we wanted to ask you if you'd consider staying in our house during your time at Butler, Oliver," Bea said. "I know you've probably already fixed on a place to live, but we're not that far from campus – you could even ride your bike when the weather's nice."
Oliver's grin showed his back molars. "I'd love to," he said happily. "As it turns out, my living arrangements have altered a little in the past few hours."
"Excellent." George and Bea beamed at each other. "Now, Oliver, I hope you won't take offense at this, but we know how young men live when they're away from their mothers. Since Katie is in between jobs right now, we'd like to ask her to come, too, and make sure the house doesn't get trashed. Of course, if you find a nice boy while you're there, we'd understand if you wanted to get married and move out," Bea added.
I blinked at her for a second, not sure if I should be grateful for the invitation or disturbed that she thought I would be looking for a husband. "It'll probably be easier to find a job in Indianapolis," George put in, watching me closely. "It is a little bigger than Vincennes."
Why was I hesitating? It wasn't like opportunities like this fell out of the sky every day. "I can move in tomorrow," I told them, smiling almost as big as Oliver. "But I don't think I'll be looking for a soul mate while I'm there."
Bea waved her hand dismissively in the air. "You never know," she said. "Stranger things have happened."
"Wait just a minute." Mom was looking a little panicked. "You can't take two of my children away from me at once."
Not this again. Part of the reason I hadn't moved out yet was because Mom tended to hyperventilate whenever the idea came up. If I was very honest with myself, though, I didn't bring it up all that often. The world was a scary place, and a decent percentage of the scary stuff tended to happen to young blondes. At least it seemed that way to me. But for some reason, the idea of living with Oliver didn't sound too threatening. As long as I could convince him to put away his dirty socks. And wash the dishes more than once a year.
"Sally, it's time they left." Dad took her hand in his and looked at her compassionately. "And if anything happens, we're only two hours away." Mom just stared at him before she burst into tears and ran out of the room.
Dad sighed and got to his feet. "I'll go after her," he said, then turned to me and Oliver. "Don't worry; she'll come around. But it might help if Katie leaves tomorrow, as she said, and Oliver follows in a week or so. That way she'll have a few days to get used to the idea." Then he left, rubbing the bald spot on top of his head like he did whenever something wasn't running smoothly.
I stared at my plate, feeling slightly guilty for making my own mother feel so terrible. Bea reached across the table and patted my hand gently. "Don't worry," she said, repeating Dad's words. "It had to happen sooner or later, and it's much better that you move out now than the day you get married."
Why did she keep bringing up marriage? I wasn't against the idea, but it seemed like I should be the one to decide when to tie the knot, not my aunt-by-adoption. I decided to let it pass.
"Is there anything else you want us to do while you're gone?" I asked.
"Besides keeping Oliver's friends from tee meeing our house, you mean?"
"I think you mean teepeeing, Aunt Bea." This was the first thing Josie had said all evening, and her voice sounded small and depressed.
"Whatever. I don't want my trees covered in toilet paper. Am I understood?" The look she gave Oliver would have frozen a very brave man.
"Yes, ma'am." He gave her a cheeky grin and saluted her.
"George will draw you a map to the house," she told me, "and we'll see you in the morning. Bring whatever you need; we have two spare bedrooms for you to use, so don't worry about furniture. And Mr. Poppikins will be thrilled to meet you."
"Mr. Poppikins?" I asked faintly. Somehow this didn't sound promising. Had she already lined me up with one of the neighbors?
Bea rifled through her purse for a minute before placing it on the table with a thump. "I must have left my wallet on the kitchen table again," she told George. "You'd better drive home."
"I was planning on it."
"Mr. Poppikins is our dog," Bea said, a motherly smile on her face. "He's the sweetest little thing. I just know you three will be the best of friends while we're gone. We thought about taking him with us, but Japan is so close to Korea. I didn't want to ruin his sleep, wondering if he'd end up on some family's dinner table. He'd be beside himself with worry the entire time we were there."
I opened my mouth to say that was highly unlikely, but caught Oliver's expression and closed it again. It said, quite plainly, 'Don't argue. There's no way you can win this discussion.'
An hour later the Butterworths were gone and I was packing my clothes in my room. Mom had come out of hiding long enough to tell George and Bea goodbye, and then she and Dad had disappeared again. When there was a knock at the door I assumed it was her.
Instead Josie came in, closing the door quietly behind her. She sank onto the bed and drew her knees up to her chin, watching me throw things out of the closet.
"If you're here to steal my clothes before they make it into my suitcase, think again," I told her, pulling things off hangers. "I know where you live, after all, and I'm not afraid to come back and reclaim what's mine."
When there was no response I poked my head out the door and tried to catch her eye. "Josie?"
She met my gaze, and I was shocked to see tears creeping down her cheeks. "What's wrong?"
"I don't want you to go,' she wailed, throwing herself on top of the clothes littering the bed and burying her face in a pillow. "I wish you'd never been fired. Then you wouldn't have a reason to leave. It'll be so lonely here all by myself."
"I wasn't fired!" This was really starting to get old.
I stood there for a minute, wondering what I should do and resisting a horrible urge to laugh. "You never cared where I was before," I said cautiously, sitting next to her and patting her shaking back. "What's changed in the past two hours?"
She hiccoughed loudly and wiped her face on the sleeve of my favorite blouse. "I know I give you a lot of grief," she sniffed, "but when you and Oliver leave it'll be just me, alone with the parents. Dad's not too bad; he has classes to prepare for and high school students to threaten, so he mostly leaves me alone. But Mom'll drive me crazy. Can't I come with you? I promise I'll clean up after myself."
All of a sudden I understood what one of my friends had said when she was preparing to go home for the summer after a tough semester at college. She had several younger siblings, and she told me that she'd never really appreciated them until she'd moved away and left them behind. Maybe Josie was feeling a little bit like that, only from the other end of the spectrum.
"You know as well as I do that if all three of us moved away at the same time Mom would have to be institutionalized."
Josie clutched the pillow to her chest and refused to look at me.
"Why don't you come to visit after a month or so? Don't you get a fall break in October?"
This didn't make her any happier. "They won't let me go," she said morosely. "They have this ridiculous idea about grades. If I don't get straight As like you and Oliver did they blow a fuse."
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. "Then I'll tell you what. You do your best at your schoolwork, and if you do decently on your midterm grading I'll convince Dad to let you come for a long weekend. Without Mom."
Josie froze, then threw her arms around my neck. "Really? Do you really mean it? I could survive the next two months if I knew there was something to look forward to."
I laughed quietly at her excitement and ruffled her hair. "I promise. Now, if you don't mind, I need to finish packing. Even though I love you, I'm not leaving my clothes here for you to ruin while I'm gone."
Josie giggled, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about boys (there were several that had caught her eye) and planning her trip to Indianapolis.
The next morning, after a teary farewell from my Mom and a more subdued one from my Dad, I was on my way, following the map George had drawn for me the night before. As long as my ancient car didn't break down on the way, this might very well turn out to be the thing I'd been dreaming about since graduating. And with Jane Austen by my side, how could I go wrong?
I was ready to face the world. Well, at least Mr. Poppikins.
Author's note: Well, here it is! I hope you like my modern version of Catherine Morland. She may be a little out of character but since I wasn't that keen on the original that was kind of the point.
A special thanks to Linnea who agreed to put up with me again, and to CJ, who has proven to be a most excellent research assistant. As always, reviews are welcome!