Kitty and the Silver Bullet Page 19

All smiles, Cheryl, Jeffy propped on her hip, let me in. She'd locked her golden retriever in the backyard, but I could hear it barking. I couldn't get within twenty feet of the dog without it freaking out. It could tell what I was and didn't like me at all.

She said, "Sorry, I'm still getting ready, come on to the kitchen." She led me through the spacious front room to a sunny kitchen.

"Mom's not here yet?"

When she looked back at me, she winced slightly, her smile turning apologetic. "I told her to come an hour later. I thought maybe we should talk, you know—alone. About her."

My first thought, aside from the gut-stabbing reminder that Mom might be seriously ill, was, Oh God, it's started. The late-night talks where we figured out what to do with old Mom and Dad, now that they're getting on in years. We used to joke about it, how they'd better treat us right because we'd be picking their nursing home. I didn't think I'd have to face this for real for another twenty years. No, thirty years.

Stubborn, I said, "Oh yeah, and she isn't going to guess that we're up to something when she gets here on time and sees that I'm actually early."

Cheryl set Jeffy down in a playpen, where he immediately found something plastic and colorful to bang against the bottom. She straightened and ran her hands through her hair, pulling strands out of the pony tail. All at once, she looked ten years older. She looked tired. Of course she looked tired, she was a mother.

"I know, I know," she said. "I just thought it would be better if we could plan—"

"Scheme behind Mom's back, you mean?"

"Okay. Yeah. It was stupid. I'm sorry."

I leaned on the counter. Couldn't help but smile. "When we were kids I always thought I'd be the one to settle down, house in the suburbs, two point five kids, and that you'd do something crazy like sing in a rock band or something. Now look at us."

Cheryl had almost been a punk in high school. She'd missed the height of the old school real deal by a few years, but she listened to the music and wore the surplus army jacket and combat boots. Lost more safety pins than most people see in a lifetime. Four years younger, I'd worshipped the ground she walked on and borrowed all her tapes, locking in my musical tastes forever. Halfway through college, she'd grown out of it. Finished a degree in computer science and did the IT management thing. Met Mark and became a suburban statistic. Mostly she'd grown out of it. I occasionally caught her wearing a Ramones T-shirt, as if to say, I wasn't always like this.

Today, her T-shirt was plain blue, faded from many washings, like her jeans.

"It's funny how meeting Mr. Right can change your perspective."

"I guess so."

"This Ben guy—is he Mr. Right?"

I wished I knew the answer to that. I shrugged. "Who knows."

She said, a sly and knowing lilt to her voice, "There's still time. You may still get sucked into that suburban two point five kids thing."

My expression froze into a polite smile. I didn't want to tell her. I wasn't ready to tell her about the kids thing. We had more important things to talk about.

"So what about Mom?" I said.

"What are we going to do?"

"It's not really up to us, is it? She's a big girl."

Cheryl started pacing. "I know, but she's going to need help, we're going to have to help her, if she has to have more surgery and chemotherapy we're going to have to look after her, aren't we?"

"I think you're jumping the gun here. Why don't we wait until we know how serious it is before we start freaking out."

"So we can make important decisions while we're freaking out?"

"Bridges, Cheryl. We'll cross them when we get to them."

"We have to be ready for the worst, we have to be ready to help."

"We will be," I said. "We totally will be, whatever it takes."

"Then you're staying? That means you'll be around, you won't go zipping off across the country at the drop of a hat, without telling anyone." She didn't ask this casually; she leaned in, glaring with a kind of desperation, almost but not quite jabbing her finger at me.

This wasn't about Mom at all, I realized.

"Cheryl, what are you asking? You want to make sure that if Mom needs help it won't all be you? Is that it?"

We stayed like that, staring at each other. It was almost wolfish.

The door opened, and Mom's voice called, "Hello, Cheryl? Kitty? Is that your car out there?"

How could she sound so damned cheerful? She ought to be mentally curled up and quivering like the rest of us.

All smiles, Cheryl went out to meet her, our conversation forgotten. "Hi, Mom! We're in here!"

Jeffy was on his feet, leaning on the rail of the playpen, talking at me, but I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I regarded him a moment and said, "She's still crazy after all these years, isn't she?"

Nicky had stopped Mom—Grandma—in the living room, and the two of them were gushing at each other about toys when Cheryl and I arrived. Now the whole house was filled with hugs and greetings. It was all very girly and domestic. Mom seemed to have recovered from the surgery. And why wouldn't she? Perfectly routine, everyone kept saying. As if the words "perfect" and "surgery" belonged in the same sentence. She was sore, though she tried to hide it. She managed to hug us without using her right arm. If she was nervous about waiting for the results, she hid that as well.

Cheryl had sandwiches waiting in the kitchen, and we settled down to eat. Nicky peeled the crusts off hers. Mom helped her.

The whole time, Mom talked about nothing in particular, filling the silence so the unspoken worry couldn't be mentioned. Cheryl kept glancing at me, her expression prompting me, like she wanted me to say something. Wanted me to ask Mom if she needed help. But I wasn't going to bring up anything. She was the oldest, that was her job. I didn't care if I was the self-help guru in the family.

When she got the test results, Mom wouldn't even have to tell us. I didn't know why Cheryl was so worried about helping her—the more I thought about it, the more I thought Mom wouldn't want our help. She'd get through as much of this as she could all by herself.

That was what I'd have done. At least, I'd have tried.

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