One I have a big mouth. This doesn't mean that my face should grace the pages of Guinness, eyes bulging wildly as I strain to stretch my lips around thirty-one asparagus spears or the splintered end of a two-by-four. It doesn't mean I have thick, juicy lips, or a wide grin, packed with an enamel army of pristine white teeth. My big mouth isn't a physical characteristic, it's a character flaw. It's my very own San Andreas fault, geographically positioned an equal distance from both my pointy chin and pointier nose. It may not tremble, and it may not crack, but it is always on the brink of doing major damage to myself and the people around me. I've cursed it and been cursed for it since day one, but that's never stopped me from saying things without thinking, and throughout my twenty-six years, my tendency to blurt has continually landed me on the wrong side of a spanking, a cold shoulder, and everything in between. "You forgot," Rachel groaned. I'd just returned to our shared desk after running a lunch hour gauntlet that included U.S. Bank, Walgreens, Hollywood Video, and a high-speed pursuit of sustenance at a McDonald's drive-through. "I can't believe you forgot," she said, then flipped her thick blonde braid over her shoulder, trained her striking blue eyes on me, and begged, "Please tell me you didn't forget." "The coffee?" I asked, dropping my knapsack beneath the desk and slipping out of my navy peacoat. "No," I assured her, "I didn't forget." "Thank god," she grinned, exposing the slightly overlapping tooth most men in the office found strangely intoxicating. This I knew because a traitor to their team--a surly claims adjuster called Keith--had told me about "the list." My best friend, Rachel (and her snaggletooth), had ranked number one until Sue Parsons in Accounting got a boob job and suddenly shot from seventeen to the top spot. And me? I didn't know if I was even on the list and, to be honest, I wasn't sure whether it would be more humiliating to be a hit or a miss. What if Randy Johnson, the creepy little troll in Claims, wanted to have sex with me? Even worse: what if he didn't? "So, where is it?" Rachel asked, peering over my shoulder at the swirling mass of paperwork covering my desk. I needed a proper filing system, though a shredder sounded much more appetizing. "I didn't get any," I told her, shuddering at the sight of the Johnson file. That one could wait. Indefinitely. "What?" Rachel asked, and I looked up to see the crease of a worry line marring her otherwise flawless forehead. "But you just said--" "That I didn't forget, Rach. The fact is, I didn't have time." "No time, huh?" She leaned toward me and sniffed. "Is that a chickenesque McScent you're wearing?" I averted my gaze and murmured, "McPossibly." "Lauren." Her tone was as stern as my ninth grade P.E. teacher's, and I half expected her to demand I do laps of the building. "Okay," I said, raising my hands in surrender. "Yes, I grabbed lunch." "That's not lunch, it's toxic waste," she said, making no effort to hide her disdain. "Yup, with a side of fries." She grumbled about caffeine deprivation and I waited for the high-speed technology of my PC to join me in the present moment. I absently stared at the handleless ceramic mug I'd cleverly converted into a desktop pen corral, jam-packed with ballpoints, pencils, and even a pair of scissors. While my computer grunted and beeped its way back to life, I daydreamed about storming the office supply market with a new product line guaranteed to buy me early retirement: Office Transformers. As usual, in mere seconds, the idea shifted away from the bright glow of brilliance to the shadowed caves of stupidity. Ingenious, Lauren. Surely you are the only person on the planet with a broken mug full of pens. Stick to Insurance, at least it's a paycheck. "I was going to have a mocha latte," Rachel said, pointing at the wide, clear surface of her half of the desk. "Right here." She paused for a moment. "With cinnamon." She rested her delicately rounded chin in her perfect palms and stared despondently at the shriveled spider fern on my desk. For crying out loud, it was coffee, not a heart transplant. "Put it toward your student loan," I told her, typing my password. "Excuse me?" "Or your Visa bill." I shrugged, frowning as the system rejected me. I hit the Caps Lock button and gave it another go, this time successfully. Rachel asked, "Are you referring to the four bucks that you--" "Saved on your behalf?" I finished for her, then turned to meet a surprisingly angry gaze. What was her problem? "Hey, four bucks a pop adds up and--" She raised a hand to stop me. "Lauren, I don't think you should be getting into my money situation." She continued to glare at me, for no apparent reason. "Lack of money situation, you mean," I said, wiggling in my chair. I could tell that someone had "borrowed" it in my absence, sabotaging all of my ergonomic efforts. I immediately began lifting levers and turning dials to tweak it back into my ideal setting, muttering under my breath. "The mouth," Rachel murmured, as she tucked a small stack of papers into a yellow folder and deposited it in her out-box, which was as full as my in. "What?" I asked, finally settling comfortably in my chair and sipping borderline icy orange spice tea from a chipped Oregon Museum of Science and Industry mug. "Your mouth," she repeated, lightly glossed lips pursed in disapproval. "What?" I asked again, totally lost. "I didn't say anything." Did I? I replayed the conversation in my head, looking for objectionable lowlights. There were none that I could recall. While I was mulling over her sour mood, a couple of adjusters came through the front door on their return from lunch and gave us their usual cursory nods. "Assholes," I muttered. "Sorry?" the shorter guy asked, as he straightened his tie. "Oh, nothing," I stammered. "I was just talking to myself." "Okay," he said, skeptically. "Well, you have a good day." The comment and a bonus leer were directed solely at Rachel, who was oblivious to her power over the male population. "Oh my god, Lauren," she groaned when the two men had left us alone, "you should wear one of those collars that silences barking dogs." She shook her head and a couple of golden hairs broke loose from her braid with the movement, picking up added shine from the fluorescent lights above us. "Nice, Rachel. Thanks a lot." Not that a shock collar wouldn't have saved me from time to time. "Just a quick blast to the vocal cords," Rachel continued, with a sharp laugh. "Yeah, great idea," I said, rolling my eyes. "So, how would the collar differentiate between the things I should and shouldn't say?" She leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered, "Laur, ninety percent of what you say is a mistake, and the rest is questionable, at best." "Okay," I said, waving at Candace the half-wit as she walked by on her way to the break room, wearing enough bangles and bracelets to sound like half a dozen wind chimes in a freaking tornado. I turned back to Rachel, growing exasperated, and asked, "What exactly did I say?" "I can see the packaging now," she said, laughing again. "They'd call it Blurt Alert. Gavin could design the logo, but the marketing campaign? That would be all you." "Hey," I said, perhaps a couple of decibels too loudly, considering Kevin and Scott were passing our desk on the way to their weekly meeting with Knutsen. "Are you or are you not living under a mounting pile of debt?" Scott snickered, but kept walking. "Lauren!" Rachel gasped. "I already told you--" "All about it," I said. "That credit card is your constant companion, Rach, and--" "Hey! Back off, Peterson," she said, rising from her chair and grabbing an empty Aquafina bottle from her desk. She moved toward the break room to fill it. "What did I say?" I asked, utterly bewildered. "Let's just end the discussion before I say something I regret, too," she snapped, over her shoulder. "But I don't regret anything I said," I called after her. All I'd done was state the facts, for crying out loud. She turned to shoot me an unwarranted dirty look and said, "I am walking away, Lauren." Yeesh. My best friend, the emotional mystery. Grateful for the momentary break from her crappy mood, I decided to tackle my backlog of paperwork. I pulled a pile of folders, painstakingly labeled by someone who clearly cared far more than I did, toward me. But rather than attacking the pile, I simply stared at it, wishing it would miraculously disappear, much like the four hundred thousand dollars that landed our former vice president in a prison cell substantially larger than my work space, though less comfortable, I was sure. When Rachel returned with a full bottle of water and the same attitude, made apparent by her jerky movements, dour expression, and utter silence, I was still staring at the stack of files. Five minutes later, however, I'd moved on . . . to staring blankly at my surroundings. My best guess was that whoever painted the west wall pale beige and its eastern counterpart a slightly darker beige (which would have gone unnoticed by anyone who hadn't spent countless hours transfixed by boredom, as I had) was guided by the firm hand of an actuary, who had somehow calculated the odds of a Knutsen employee being startled by the sight of a blue or yellow wall, tripping over their feet in wonder, and filing a worker's comp or medical insurance claim for their injuries, hitting Knutsen right in the pocketbook. The only artwork displayed in the foyer was a small collection of black-and-white photographs, depicting pastoral scenes whose blandness was only upstaged by the cream vase to the left of my desk, filled with polyester-blend flowers in various shades of yawn. I thought of the previous month's Bring Your Child to Work Day, when the building had been overrun with eager little faces, thrilled to be missing out on the mundane schedule of their elementary school programs, even for a day. By the morning coffee break, those faces had lost some color, and by noon, the children were listless and wan. As I'd watched them exit the building after what had to have been the longest day of their young lives, I wondered how many would vow to pursue their dreams instead of a paycheck, and how many wished they'd just spent the damn day at school, where they wouldn't have had to watch their mothers slurping cheap, stale coffee and ignoring the flames of hell, licking the rubber soles of their Naturalizer shoes. I sighed. So what am I doing here? Doesn't life have more in store for me than this? Before I could wander any further into wondering, my phone rang. "Knutsen Insurance, this is Lauren." "Honey, it's Mom." I could practically smell the SPF 30 through the receiver and I glanced at the framed photo of my folks next to my monitor with a smile. They wore matching royal blue and green tropical print shirts in front of a fabulous sunset I would have thought was fake, had I not known they'd embarked on their retirement by moving from the Portland home where they'd raised me to Florida six months earlier. So far, they'd survived three "adventures," which anyone else, including meteorologists or kindergarten students, would recognize as "hurricanes." "Dad and I are at the airport," Mom continued. "Already?" I asked, checking my watch. "We're early for everything these days, hon. Doctor's appointments, the brunch buffet at the hotel down the street, and now, the airport. It's just as well we have the spare time, though. After we'd filled four tubs with our belts, watches, shoes, cosmetics, cell phones, and that pesky laptop, your father made a silly remark when he went through the X-ray, and now the Gestapo has stepped in for an impromptu interrogation and possible strip search. They have no sense of humor, whatsoever." Good grief. What was Dad thinking? "Yeah, but in a post-9/11 atmosphere--" "I know, I know," she sighed. "But does your father really look like he poses a threat to national security?" "Nope." He looked like the accountant he'd been for more than thirty years. "And tell me, do I look like a terrorist?" "Well--" I hedged. "They confiscated my deodorant, Lauren." "Was it Secret?" I couldn't resist asking. "It was Ban, Smarty-pants." "And now it's Banned," I laughed. "True enough. Personal hygiene be damned, I suppose. So, did you talk to your boss?" she asked, hopefully. "I wished him a good morning when I came in." Mr. Knutsen had frowned in response, then glanced rather pointedly at his watch. I was ten minutes late, and as my heels clicked against the skidproof linoleum, I'd considered that if he was the whiz everyone claimed he was, he should have come up with some kind of tardiness insurance for me, so he could not only charge me an annual premium, but hit me with a deductible once a week. Well, more like three times, actually. "You know what I'm talking about," Mom said. "Yes, and I won't be able to get the time off." The lie slipped through my lips before I'd given it a thought. "He said that?" "She wasn't immediate family, Mom," I said, hoping that would be explanation enough. Of course, it wasn't. "She was your great-aunt," my mother said, over the din of distant boarding announcements. "Exactly. Not immediate family." I pulled the top file from my stack and glanced at the contents. Car accident. I set it aside, the first item in a brand new stack-to-be. "Did he offer a partial day, at least?" Mom asked. I slowly inhaled then released the breath, weighing the pros and cons of continuing down the path I was on. "Look, I haven't even asked him," I admitted, with a sigh. "You think I don't know that?" Mom chuckled, grimly. "Please make the effort, will you? It's important." "Mom, I guarantee Aunt Ida's too busy either sprouting wings or trying to score a flame-retardant jumpsuit to give a rat's ass about whether I'm a no-show at the funeral." My comment was greeted with chilly silence. Oops. When she finally did speak, there was an edge to her voice. "I meant that it's important to me," she said, quietly. "You and Ida may not have known each other well, but she was the last of her generation. My mother's generation." "Mom, I--" "I've got to check on your father," she said. "We'll see you at six, and Tim's flight gets in just after us." "Tim's coming?" I sighed. Just what I need. "He's your brother." "So you say," I muttered. "Lauren," she warned. "What? I just like to leave a little room for doubt, considering." "Considering what?" "That he's a total weenie." It was her turn to sigh. "We'll see you in a few hours." When I hung up the phone, Rachel tilted her head and gave me a quizzical look. "What's going on?" "My Aunt Ida died," I told her. She winced, and the anger she'd been misdirecting at me immediately faded away, replaced by sympathy. "Laur, you never even mentioned it." "It happened a couple of days ago, and I guess it's sort of been sinking in," I told her. "My parents are flying in tonight." "Aunt Ida . . ." Rachel murmured, blonde eyebrows furrowed. "Was she the one here in town?" "Yup." "I never met her." She paused. "What happened?" I shrugged. "She just kind of dropped dead, I guess." Rachel shook her head, braid swishing against the silk of her periwinkle blouse. "Very tactful, Laur." "What? She was, like, a hundred years old." "You're unbelievable," she sighed. "So when's the funeral?" "Friday." "Which means you've only got a couple of days to get your grief under control," she said, with the hint of a smirk. "Do I detect a note of sarcasm?" I asked. "A note? Actually, it's more of a symphony, Supersleuth." I faked a chuckle and turned back to my paperwork, my heart sinking over Mom's insistence that I attend the main event. I'd never been a fan of funerals, and always figured that when my time came I'd like people to have a party and share amusing anecdotes about me instead of sitting in a solemn church, listening to a minister's voice bouncing against the high ceilings as he spoke of me in soft, generic terms, as though I'd never kicked Ben McDowell in the nuts when I was eleven or taken out two park benches and an astonished squirrel on my driving test. I didn't want some heavily powdered spinster to adjust her huge, googly glasses and smile to herself as she caressed the keys of an organ, playing a song I didn't know, which had been deemed appropriate, when I would have chosen something more along the lines of Quiet Riot's "Cum on, Feel the Noize," just to get some toes tapping. I'd always hated funerals, but I was feeling especially leery of this one. "What's wrong?" Rachel asked. "Nothing," I said, absently. Ida had never married or had children. She'd spent her entire life alone. "Is it Daniel?" "No," I told her, but in a way, it was. I'd broken off our engagement a couple of months earlier, which had been a grueling and heartbreaking process I never wanted to repeat. Ever. And, the truth was, I had mixed feelings about Ida's circumstances. Sure, she'd undoubtedly been lonely, but her spinsterhood meant that she'd never had to field countless questions about what went wrong with her relationship, or wonder who was fueling the ever-productive rumor mill. Aunt Ida never had to split up the proceeds of an eight-year pairing, pausing only to negotiate who kept chipped plates or lidless Tupperware. She didn't have to bargain for which friendships she got to keep, or prove which CDs she'd owned before she'd moved in. But most importantly, Aunt Ida didn't have to wonder whether there was a perfect partner out there, waiting for her. Her life was over, while mine was spread out before me like a blank canvas. Hell, I wasn't even sure where to find paint. While the apartment I'd shared with Rachel since the split seemed impossibly cramped, part of me envied the compact design of the casket I imagined Ida would be buried in, and the white satin pillow she'd rest her worry-free head upon. "Lauren." Rachel laid a manicured hand on my arm. "What is it?" "Nothing," I said, trying to shake it off. "I guess I'm just sad about Ida." The truth was, I felt terrified I'd end up just like her and die alone. "Did Knutsen give you the day off for the funeral?" "I haven't asked," I told her. "I'm sure he would." Unfortunately, when I spoke to him ten minutes later, he did. Copyright © 2007 by Wendy French. All rights reserved.
Wendy French is the author of the acclaimed novels sMothering, Going Coastal, and After the Rice. Raised in Vancouver, Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon.