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A sumptuous nursery in an upscale commuter suburb, Firth, New Jersey
“Don’t you just love the smell of diaper cream?” Cat Babcock said, inhaling Desitin. “I loathe it,” said her sister, Claire. “It’s like exhaust from a New York City bus.” They were checking on their napping children. Their mother had agreed to take the grandkids for the day. The two stay-at-home moms slash die-hard volunteers were headed to their garden club meeting. Only Cat said “Aww,” peaking over the wood railing of the Thornden family crib. Claire Chadwick merely glanced in as she lit another Marlboro. They’re sleeping. We’ve checked. Let’s go. Their toddlers, Bizzy and Choo, dozed soundly together, arms and legs unconsciously entwined. Dark wisps were matted to the little girl’s forehead. The boy’s diaper pin had unfastened.
As Cat repinned her son’s cloth diaper, Claire yanked her daughter’s pinky from his mouth. “Why did you do that?” whispered Cat. “They’ll wake up. Are you nuts?”
Claire scoffed. “Choo has his own thumb to suck.”
“What does it matter? They’re sound asleep.”
“I find it unbecoming.”
“Bizzy’s a ba-by. They’re cousins, for crying out loud.”
Cat shook her head. Claire exhaled a stream of smoke over the slumbering children, setting the mobile’s wooden zoo animals in slight motion. “Well, then, it’s unnecessary.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Cat, gently sweeping her niece’s moist tendrils off her face. Claire was too busy in the mirror to notice her daughter’s discomfort. A tall, raven-haired beauty with cobalt eyes and a dimple, she towered over her younger, boxier sister. Claire was told—ad nauseam as a teen in the fifties—she was the spitting image of Elizabeth Taylor. Deciding her looks to be the sum total of her value, she set a laser focus on them without distraction. Cat—nicknamed Cat-in-the-Hat as an impish child—was the shorter, curvier version of the Thornden sisters. She shared the same raven hair and dimpled right cheek but had a playful spark her icy sister lacked. Claire found no humor in Cat’s pointless antics and dismissed her subpar beauty. Cat rebelled by becoming a real free spirit, cultivating an audacious, risk-taking personality; whereas, Claire remained immersed in lipsticks and creams, allocating her energy to social positioning.
“We’re going to be late,” Claire said, snubbing her cigarette out in the ashtray. She left the nursery in a snit. Cat stayed behind and whispered to her slumbering cherub, “You, my darlings, are perfection. Bizzy, your mother’s a piece of work, and I will do everything I can to be your ally.” Choo rolled over; his eyes fluttered as he burrowed deeply into his cousin’s armpit. “And you, my sweet son, are doing wonderfully. Keep a low profile and we’ll all be fine. Just, whatever you do, don’t turn into your father. And Bizzy, don’t you become your mom.”
Before leaving, Cat clicked on the large box fan wedged in the window since mid-May. The rubber diaper cover Claire insisted Bizzy wear was clearly the reason she had been overheating. Appearances have always mattered more to her than people, Cat thought, deftly removing the diaper cover. Then she returned Bizzy’s pinky to Choo’s searching mouth. “You both have my blessing to behave as unbecoming as you want occasionally. Ignore her and have some harmless fun.”
A well-appointed suburban kitchen, Larkspur, New Jersey
Drapes and patios, families and slacks—the citizens of tony Larkspur were cut from a prescribed cloth. Major appliances were endlessly updated and swimming pools de rigueur. Cat’s turn-of-the-century Colonial had splendid white shingles, dormers, and black shutters. Her front door sported a worn brass knocker in the shape of a mallard duck. The knocker on Claire’s house next door was a fox. The two stately beauties were separated by a tall, privet hedge, flanked by award-winning gardens that erupted every spring. Their combined eight-acre backyard, however, was open and continuous. It boasted a massive lawn, in-ground pool, hoops, and a trampoline. The homes’ interiors strictly adhered to the mandatory design code of the day; among the approved colors were sage green, cranberry, orange, and shocking pink. More ducks and foxes repeated themselves madly on chintz upholstery and wallpaper, with the occasional smattering of crossed tennis racquets and geese.
“Do you think our children are weird?” Claire asked Cat while looking out the kitchen window. She bristled as she said it; the thought horrified her to no end.
Cat craned her neck to see all five Thornden cousins playing touch football in the sprawling backyard. Everyone was dressed in wool sweaters and hats for the annual New Year’s Day game, with the exception of twelve-year-olds Bizzy and Choo, who were wearing Charlie’s Angels wigs—Farrah and Jaclyn, respectively. Twenty or so assorted family friends’ kids joined them, their laughter visible in the brittle, late-afternoon air.
“Which ones?” Cat teased, knowing full well. She didn’t think she’d ever heard her sister use the word “weird” and almost asked if she knew what it meant. “Are we talking about Bizzy and Choo?”
“Yes. Obviously,” snapped Claire.
“And what kind of weird are we talking? Adorable weird or depraved weird?” Claire nearly said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, they’re only twelve, how depraved could they already be?” but didn’t. Realizing she was being baited, she reached for her drink and another pinch of paprika. Her burgundy, high-waisted slacks set off her narrow, lithe figure, and Final Net kept her hot-rollered hair just so. Cat sipped her Tab as she watched her sister’s thin outstretched arm. “You’re not the queen of England, you know. You can stop anointing the eggs.” Claire dragged on her Marlboro with the other hand as they worked in Cat’s new avocado-and-orange kitchen. The appliances were also new—top-of-the-line Amana—and naturally preordered to match. The sisters readied the crushed nut–covered cheese ball and sprinkled paprika over six dozen deviled eggs. They’d been arranged magazine-perfect on porcelain platters as if this had been their aesthetic destiny all along.
Cat looked out the window just in time to see her son, Choo, pass the ball to Bizzy, who shoved it under her fisherman-knit sweater and dashed to the goal line made of plaid scarves in the snow. Their victory celebration was a spontaneous polka—something they’d certainly not learned in ballroom dance class.
“Adorable weird and I’m through talking about it,” Claire said and drained her Mount Gay and tonic.
“How many have you had?” said Cat, nodding toward her sister’s glass.
“Don’t become one of those people who turns into a pill just because you can’t drink anymore.” Cat couldn’t believe her sister would say such a thing. Then she thought, No, of course she would. Yes, she was annoyed Claire continued to drink in front of her after she’d entered AA a few years back. “Not my problem,” Claire had initially said to Cat with all the sensitivity of an alcoholic herself. But Cat knew deep down Claire was right—it wasn’t her problem to manage.
“Takes one to know one,” said Cat, sorry she’d said anything in the first place.
Claire knew she’d gotten to her sister. Touché, she thought. We’re even. “Relax, Friend of Bill W,” said Claire. “Grab the clam dip and let’s get these eggs out. They’re not going to pass themselves. You’ve done a good job, Cat. Everything looks delicious. Oh, I added sherry to the fondue.”
Claire helped Cat untie her apron, and Cat forgave her for being a judgmental harpy. Then Cat called in the troops while Claire put a cup of plastic sword toothpicks with the sausage balls. She reminded herself of what laid the bedrock for their long, productive relationship—their simpatico devotion to family and friends, an appreciation for art and culture. There was also the desire to create a storybook childhood and give their children a lasting legacy. It’s why they’d bought houses next door to each other and created a communal Shangri-La. It’s why they herded the cousins as siblings and forgave each other again and again. Yes, sometimes Cat grew annoyed by Claire’s relentless party onslaught and occasionally tossed a few deviled eggs into the hydrangea for sport. But she went along with her sister’s largesse so her kids would know the right people. She’d made a mess of things in her past and didn’t want retribution visited upon the innocent. Nor could she risk any fallout from her secret. That, above all, was key.
The sliding glass kitchen door opened to a brood of loud, steamy children with opened coats and sweaty brows. “Rumpus room! Keep moving!” shouted Claire like a stage manager shuttling filthy extras toward the basement door. “Except for you two,” she said, stopping Bizzy and Choo in their tracks. “I need you to pass these hors d’oeuvres to the grown-ups. Take off the wigs and fix your hair, both of you.”
“What wigs?” said Bizzy.
“Where are your hats?” said Claire.
“We couldn’t find them,” Choo lied on the spot without remorse. They loved to needle Claire—all the cousins did. Bizzy added, “These wigs are wicked warm, Mom. You should try it! They’re better than hats!”
“I’ll do no such thing. And stop saying ‘wicked.’”
Choo said, “Aunt Claire, if you want us to really sell the eggs, you should totally let us wear the wigs.” He flipped his tresses over a shoulder and clasped two fingers to his ear, pointing skyward. “They’re integral to our mission. Should we decide to accept it.”
“Please stop saying ‘totally.’”
“Oh, you’re accepting it, all right,” said Cat. “Take the eggs and find the microfiche. Go.”
“Got it, Boz,” said Choo, and reached for a platter. Claire grimaced, knowing majority had ruled. Cat shooed them toward the living room. “Good luck, Kate and Farrah. And don’t come back ’til they’re empty.”
“I’m Jaclyn, Mom,” called Choo with mock indignation.
“Sor-ry!” sang Cat with a chuckle.
Once the kids were gone, Cat said to Claire, “Okay, yes, Bizzy and Choo are slightly weird. How can they not be? They’re our kids. We’re weird, you know.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Claire, redirecting a curl already in place.
“And yes, they’re joined at the hip, but that was our goal, remember?”
“They’re a little too close if you ask me. They have no other close friends except that little bully Piper.”
“You wanted this, Claire. They’re best friends, so mission accomplished. And if you think that’s weird, well then, that’s sad.”
Copyright © 2019 by V. C. Chickering