"SEE THIS TEAPOT?" DODY ASKED, waving it at me from her seat at the kitchen island. "It belonged to a member of the French Resistance during World War II. Walter and I bought it from this darling little shop in Paris."
I looked over from my precarious perch on a wobbly stepstool. Actually it was the teapot I'd given her for her fiftieth birthday. It was from Sears. I didn't have the heart to correct her.
"Pretty." I nodded.
"Isn't it? I love things that have a story to them." She stroked the side of the pot.
Every relic in Dody's house had some story attached, although more often than not one that wasn't true. Our family often joked that Dody remembered everything, whether it happened that way or not.
"Thanks for letting me practice on your kitchen," I said.
The kids and I were back in Bell Harbor and today I was working on Dody's pantry. If I could get this episode of Hoarders organized, I could tackle anything.
I was still contemplating my leap into going professional. I'd done some online research and discovered there was a National Association of Professional Organizers. Figures they'd be organized enough to have a national association, right? They even offered training sessions. There was one close to Bell Harbor in a couple of weeks. Dody said that was a sign from the Universe. I was not convinced. Still, this gave me the perfect excuse to clear away thirty-plus years of Dody-debris.
So far I'd found eleven jars of uniquely colored homemade jellies, potatoes that had nearly taken root into the shelf boards, a variety of ground, milled, pressed, and whole flaxseeds, a thirty-pound bag of brown rice, and a box of crackers that would require carbon dating to establish an age. All of that was stashed amid dried finger paints, glittery pine cones, tarantula food, a tambourine signed by Elton John, an Obama bobblehead, three sock puppets, and a variety of board-game pieces.
I plucked at something high on a shelf. "Why are there peacock feathers in here?"
"Careful with those!" Dody hopped from her chair and took them. "Jasper gave those to me for Mother's Day one year. I wondered where they'd gotten off to." She looked at them lovingly for half a second then jabbed them into a potted houseplant.
I pulled out another chess pawn. "What's with all the chess pieces?"
"Oh, those are to remind me I don't know how to play."
I lifted the lid off a shoebox. "Pictures."
"Really? Let me see those."
I handed them over.
Dody pushed back the oversized sleeves of her Red Wings jersey and started flipping through the box.
"Look, here's one of Walter riding an elephant in India. Or was that at the zoo?"
I sneezed from the dust and then peeked at the picture. It was definitely not taken at the Bell Harbor zoo. "I'm guessing India."
She nodded. "I didn't go on that trip. Jasper was a baby. Here's one of Fontaine's Mohawk. I'm glad that look didn't last. Oh, goodness, here's one of your mother and me. When was that?" She tapped the picture against her head as if to prod the memory. "I think it was the day our pop took me to get my driver's permit." She looked back at the photo. "Oh, yes! See how I'm holding it up? That was right before I drove his Ford into the side of the garage."
"You drove his car into a wall?"
She rolled her eyes. "Not on purpose!"
Tales of my aunt's mishaps were so woven into our family lore, the expression "Totally Dody" now applied to anyone who did something unexpected and ridiculous.
"I'd only had my permit for an hour before Dad took it away. But I'm glad he did. Why, if he hadn't, I might not have been walking home the next day in the rain. And then Walter never would've offered me a ride in his car and I might never have met him."
"You got into his car when you didn't even know him?" I threw another chess piece into the pile.
"Oh, I knew who he was! He just didn't know me yet. We went to the same school but he was older." She sighed like a bobby-soxer dreaming over an Elvis poster. "My, he was handsome. All the girls thought so."
I pictured Uncle Walter with his freckled bald head, soft belly, and thick-framed reading glasses. Dody's Mona Lisa smirk told me she remembered him differently.
"We used to skinny-dip, you know. Every year at midnight on my birthday. Walter called it 'celebrating under a full moon.'" Her cheeks went pink.
I shook my head in wonder. Imagine, forty years with the same man and still the thought of him made her blush. If true love ever existed, that was it.
"Wow! The kitchen looks amazing! I could actually cook in here now."
Jasper's effusive compliment almost made me forget I was grimy, sweaty, and exhausted from my mammoth endeavor. The sheer volume of random paraphernalia that erupted from Dody's kitchen had trapped me for hours. I'd spent the entire day clawing my way out. But now I was finished, and Jasper was correct. The kitchen did indeed look amazing, functional, and clean.
My kids had even helped, though not without grumbling. Now Paige was coloring and Jordan sat on the floor playing with some trucks.
"Looky, Jasper. I have labels on my shelves!" Dody grinned from the pantry doorway, twirling her wrist like a game show sidekick.
He stepped past her and cocked his head. "How'd you make those labels?"
"With a label maker," I answered.
"You own a label maker?"
My hands went to my hips. "Everyone should own a label maker."
Dody stepped out as Jasper laughed. "I must admit, you've got some mad skills."
"Thank you. Now will you make me some dinner? I'm starv - "
My words were cut off by a whoosh, a whoop, and a sickening smack! Dody tripped as she walked from the kitchen, catapulted forward, and whacked her head against a sharp-cornered table. Her body collapsed to the floor with a thud.
We reached her simultaneously, just as blood began to seep from her temple. I felt woozy. Blood was so not my thing. I nicked myself shaving in the shower once and nearly had to dial 911.
"Oh, my," said Dody wanly, pressing her hand against the wound.
"Are you OK, Aunt Dody?" Paige asked. "Mommy, we were just playing here and she tripped over Jordan's truck."
I turned to see my son holding up the two halves.
"Aunt Dody broke my truck." His lip trembled.
Blood dripped faster now, dribbling down Dody's cheek. My stomach heaved. I swallowed hard.
"Paige, grab a towel from the kitchen. Hurry!"
"I'm fine," Dody said faintly, slumping toward Jasper.
"Let me see it, Mom." He nudged her hand away and grimaced.
She had an inch-long gash right along her hairline. The skin puckered open. Please tell me that's not brain matter oozing out. I felt the room spin and struggled to maintain my bearings. I'd never live it down if Dody got hurt but I was the one who fainted.
Paige handed me the towel, which I passed to Jasper. He patted it gently against Dody's head.
"Stop fussing, you two," she said. "I just bumped my head. It'll stop bleeding in a minute."
"I'm so sorry, Dody! This is my fault," I murmured.
"Of course it's not your fault. You didn't push me." Her gaze rolled my way. "Did you?"
"No, but I shouldn't let the kids leave their toys around."
Jordan's lip trembled faster and a tear popped from one eye. "I'm sorry, Aunt Dody."
She pulled him close. "Oh, nonsense, darling. It's not your fault. It was just an accident." Jasper continued patting at her head with the towel. "Mom, I think you might need stitches. This is kind of deep."
Stitches? Now I felt even worse! Here she had invited us into her home, welcomed us like prodigal children, and all because of that, she'd split her fool head open.
"Let's take you to the med center." Jasper moved to pull her upright, but she resisted.
"Absolutely not. It's Friday night. I have a poker date with the girls, and I have to win my six dollars back from Anita Parker, so you're not dragging me to some crowded emergency room."
"Stop being stubborn," Jasper said. "I've cut myself enough times to know when somebody needs stitches. We are going to the med center."
She shook her head, flinging a droplet of blood onto the carpet.
I looked away. I would make a terrible vampire.
"No, we're not," she said. "But you can get Dr. Pullman, if you want."
Dr. Pullman lived a few houses away. Dody consulted him whenever someone in her family ran a high fever, had a mysterious rash, or accidentally stuck something up their nose.
"What's his phone number?" Jasper asked.
Dody's head lolled back, her eyes clouding over. "My goodness, would you look at those cobwebs on this ceiling? Sadie, I'm surprised you missed those."
Jasper looked at me. "Would you run down there and get him? We may end up in the med center anyway, but maybe he can at least take a look at her."
I nodded, hopping up on shaky legs. I'd gladly go for Dr. Pullman, if only to escape this moment. Dody was white as a ghost and I was getting queasier by the second.
I ran down the street and a few minutes later found myself standing on Dr. Pullman's expensively bricked front porch. Ornate ceramic pots sat on either side of the wide wooden door, but in contrast to the elaborate landscaping, the flowers in them were shriveled and dead. I rang the bell, noticing then the flecks of blood on my shirt. Hopefully Dr. Pullman would remember me from summers past and not think I was some homicidal maniac. I smoothed out my wrinkled shorts and quickly redid my ponytail, as if that minor primping would make a difference.
A fluffy gray cat sauntered up, giving me an imperious once-over.
She was disdainful in the way only a cat can be. I was beneath her contempt.
"Bitch," I muttered, attempting to exert my human superiority.
As the word left my mouth and hung suspended in the air, the door opened and there, standing before me, was none other than Running Man!
My eyes widened. I suspect my mouth dropped open too. I must have looked like a skeptical eight-year-old finding Santa unloading presents under my Christmas tree. Wow, ogling this guy from Dody's deck had not done him justice. He was much taller up close, and his hair wasn't nearly as dark as I thought. But I'd been right about the muscles. They were everywhere.
My cheeks went hot and I just stood there.
He looked at me expectantly, pleasantly, until he noticed my bloodstained shirt.
"Are you all right? May I help you?"
I started giggling hysterically. I couldn't help it. I was exhausted and stressed out. And an idiot. I wiped my hand across my shirt. "Um, I'm fine. I'm looking for Dr. Pullman's house." I leaned back to check the number posted above the door.
The cat sashayed inside like a saloon girl, pointing her ass right at me as if to say, "Who is superior now?"
Running Man squinted. "Uh, this is Dr. Pullman's house, but I'm afraid he's not in residence."
Wait a second.
Did he have an accent?
And dimples? When he wasn't even smiling? An accent and dimples? That put him straight into Panty Melting territory. (Panty Melter: an exceedingly rare species of man blessed with so many desirable attributes he effortlessly gains access into a girl's panties.) God, Sadie! Get ahold of yourself. Dody's life is at stake here.
"Um, do you know when he'll be back? My aunt fell over a truck and I think she might need stitches."
His beautiful green eyes widened. "She fell over a truck? You mean, out of a truck?"
I shook my head. "No, over a truck. A toy truck. She tripped and hit a table."
He smiled now, visibly relaxing. "Oh. All right then. In that case, Dr. Pullman won't be back for a few months, but I'm here while he's gone. I could help your aunt."
A haze of irresponsible lust began seeping into my brain, pushing concern for Dody's life far from my mind. She wasn't hurt that badly anyway. Pheromones permeated my flushed skin, and I began sputtering information faster than an auctioneer. "Could you? Really? But we need a doctor because she won't go to the med center. It's her poker night and she wants to win her six dollars back from Anita Parker. But it's kind of a deep cut, and Jasper thinks she might need stitches. Dody is so stubborn, though, and now Jordan is upset because it was his truck. But really it was all my fault."
His smile froze. I sounded like an overzealous contestant on some practical-joke show. He must be expecting TV cameras to pop up at any moment.
His head tilted. "Did you say Dody is your aunt? Dody Baker?"
"Yes!" I nodded at his uncanny insight. "She's my aunt." I tapped my collarbone. "I'm her niece."
He nodded, "That's usually how it works."
Was he teasing me? Was that banter? I loved banter!
But this was not how we were supposed to meet. Even though I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him, I had orchestrated an elaborate fantasy meeting. I'd be lounging on the beach at sunset. Due to the fading light, I would look quite attractive. He'd stroll along, looking handsome and debonair with his strategically tousled hair. He'd say, "Why, hello there," and I'd respond with something witty and clever and subversively sexual. Then he'd laugh devilishly and we'd realize we were destined to be together.
It was not supposed to be like this, with me frazzled and covered in blood.
He tilted his head in the other direction. "Stan mentioned her. I'll come have a look."
Who the hell was Stan?
"Dr. Pullman," he explained at my expression. "I'm his temporary replacement while he's on holiday, and he asked me to stay here to water the plants and such. He told me about your aunt, though."
"He did? Did he warn you she's a little nuts?" I blurted out. Damn it. Apparently I'd left my stupidity filter back at home, soaking in the pool of Dody's blood.
But Running Man chuckled, a velvety, enchanting sound, and said, "I believe the word he used was peculiar. Anyway, let me grab a couple things. Come on in."
He pushed open the door, stepping inside. I followed, like Dorothy entering Oz. The front door bumped against a decorative table in the entryway.
This was getting very strange. I mean, he was smokin' hot and all that, but I couldn't let some stranger poke and prod at my aunt just because he had really nice arms. Could I?
"Um, are you a doctor too?" I asked. "And you're here to water the plants?"
I looked out the still open door at the seriously dead geraniums in the porch pots. He followed my gaze and frowned.
"Hmm. Guess I forgot about those. You said you think she needs stitches?" He started rummaging around in a cardboard box. There were several stacked around the room as if someone was either moving in, or out.
"Yes, my cousin is sure she does."
I perused the decor, noting the Pullmans' expensive if somewhat geriatric tastes. Lots of pale hues that my kids could stain without even touching. I watched Running Man's back flex as he tore open another box. I swallowed a sudden rush of saliva, like Pavlov's horny dog. What the hell was the matter with me?
"Where did she cut herself?" The cat jumped up on the box beside him, and he pushed her away with his elbow. She landed on the floor with a thud and glared at me.
"In our living room."
His burst of laughter startled me. Caught up as I was in the grips of my own little hormone storm, it took me a minute to realize that wasn't the kind of where he meant.
"Oh! Oh, on her head. She fell and bumped her head."
Ding! Something chimed, and I jumped about a foot. "What was that?"
"Just the microwave. Dinner."
Microwaved dinner? For one? Where was Mrs. Running Man?
Tossing one last item into a nearby backpack, he reached out to take some keys off of a brass, kitten-shaped hook by the door. With my astute skills of observation - added to the fact that his hand was directly in front of my face - I noticed a distinct lack of wedding band. Interesting. But my heart sank as fast as it rose. Maybe he was gay. Shoot. He was probably gay. He had to be. His fingernails were trimmed and clean. His cuticles didn't go halfway to his knuckles. Yep, definitely gay. Oh, well. At least Fontaine would be happy.
We stepped back outside, and he pulled the door shut, sliding the keys into a pocket with his unadorned hand. I suddenly realized I didn't know his name.
I held out my equally unadorned hand. "By the way, I'm Sadie Turner."
"Des?" I think I might have squinted. Or possibly scrunched my whole face. Either way, I'm sure it wasn't pretty.
His name was Desmond? Oh, yeah. This guy was totally gay. But then he smiled, triggering maximum dimple wattage, and my belly did a flip that went straight south.
Dody's injury required several stitches, but Dr. McKnight, who had apparently been a boy scout as well, came fully prepared. His backpack held a virtual storeroom of medical supplies. He even had suckers for Paige and Jordan.
Paige, already smitten with this handsome newcomer, ate hers immediately while batting her thick, dark lashes. Jordan, on the other hand, was characteristically suspicious. No random interloper could buy his trust with one lousy piece of candy. His sucker still sat on the table, and every once in a while Jordan would flick it with his finger, just to prove how much he didn't care about it.
"It's a superficial laceration, Mrs. Baker, but head wounds tend to bleed like this. You needn't be too alarmed."
Dody reclined on the wicker love seat on the sunporch, her head resting on a bright yellow pillow. She had wrapped a lace shawl around her shoulders to cover all the brownish bloodstains on her jersey.
"I wasn't alarmed at all. It was these two." She waved a wrist at Jasper and me, her bangle bracelets jingling. "Sadie tends to be a little high-strung. She's a professional organizer, you know. Very fussy. But I suppose I did need some medical attention, and weren't we lucky to find you! Imagine what would've become of me if you hadn't been nearby."
She fluttered the plastic fan in her hand, a gift to her from Walter for their thirty-second wedding anniversary. Allegedly from the Gone with the Wind collection.
"I'm sure you would've been just fine, but without stitches you would've had quite a scar." He began putting things back in his bag.
"Oh, I've already got a scar. See?" She pointed at a tiny mark high on her cheek. "Walter gave me this one when his suspender popped off. He was doing a little striptease for me but - "
"Dody!" I gripped her shoulder.
Des smiled. "If you start to feel dizzy or nauseous or have a headache, you should let me know, or call your own doctor. You could have a mild concussion."
"I feel fine. And now that we've got you here, you simply must stay for supper. Sadie spent the whole day labeling the pantry, and Jasper's a chef. At Arno's, you know."
His face remained politely interested, but I sensed Dody had put on her scheming hat. She was starting to worry he might leave too soon.
"Sadie, get the good doctor some lemonade. He must be parched. You're staying at the Pullmans' house, you say? What does Joanna Pullman fertilize her azalea bushes with, do you suppose? They are lush with flowers every spring. Is your wife there too? Did you say you were married?"
Dr. McKnight peered up at me from his seat near Dody. "Did she suffer any loss of consciousness when she fell?"
I bit my lip and shook my head. "She's always like this."
Dody tapped his forearm with her fan. "So? What about your wife? Is she waiting for you?"
He blushed. "No one's waiting. It's just me at the Pullmans'."
"Oh, dear." Her voice was drenched in sympathy, as if he'd just announced his entire family had been recently wiped out by cholera. Or were Republicans. "Then you must stay. It's all settled, Doctor."
"I wouldn't want to impose. And please, call me Des."
"Dody, I'm sure he's busy," I said. I knew he had some preservative-laden, freeze-dried food nuked warm back at his house. And he knew that I knew. I looked over at Jasper, hoping for help, but he shrugged with indifference.
Dody flipped open her fan and fluttered it with practiced skill. "Heavens to Betsy, that's just silly. It's no imposition at all after you pulled me from the jaws of death, Des, dear."
He smiled. "I am kind of hungry."
"Excellent!" She snapped the fan shut. "Jasper, make us some dinner."
The front door banged open, and seconds later Fontaine burst onto the sunporch in his typical mad dash. Catching sight of Running Man, he stopped short, his mouth popping open like that of a blow-up doll. Then he gasped.
"Holy Mother of God! What did I miss?"