Chapter 1 - Toilet Queen
“How did Aunt Coco break her hip?” Cradling the cell phone between my ear and shoulder, I unplugged the vacuum cleaner. This had to be another ploy to get me home. As much as I loved my kooky relatives, didn’t they know I had my own crisis to deal with? I didn’t have time for their theatrics.
Aunt Coco had been known to stretch the truth—she probably got that from watching all those Chinese dramas. For the last few months, Aunt Coco had tried to use one excuse or another to get me to move back to my hometown, but she hadn’t outfoxed me yet.
“Cedar, this isn’t another trick,” Joshua Woods said over the phone. “Aunt Coco tripped over her new corgi. Her neighbor found her on the ground in the front yard.”
I winced. A broken hip for someone Aunt Coco’s age was no joke. Even after recovery, most senior citizens saw a decline in mobility. “When did she get a new dog? I thought she was allergic to pet dander.”
“The corgi showed up on her doorstep a few months ago, and it was love at first sight,” Josh said.
There was a hint of amusement in my brother’s tone. I didn’t know what to make of it. When was the last time I’d spoken to my aunt? At least two months. Had it really been that long?
“Does Aunt Coco need surgery?” I asked.
From the corner of my eye, I saw my employer walking past the master bedroom for the third time. Lisa Hilt didn’t quite peek in, but she was giving me the stink eye like I should clean rather than chat on the phone. I turned my back to the doorway. What I didn’t see, I didn’t have to deal with.
“According to the neighbor, it’s already done,” Josh said. “The old bird went through it like a pro, and she leaves the hospital in a couple of days.”
“Is someone helping her at home?”
“She wants you to do it.”
I shook my head even though my brother couldn’t see me. “What about the Avengers?”
My aunt had three boys, and each of them worked for a different branch of the military. My brother and I used to jokingly refer to our cousins as Marvel superheroes since they were deployed to save the world in places we had never even heard of.
“I can’t reach them,” Josh said. “You know how it is. It’s need to know, and apparently, we don’t need to know. They will not even get the message until Aunt Coco is back on her feet.”
I sighed. Why did I even ask about my cousins? They were never available when we needed them. “Can we hire someone to look after her?”
“Aunt Coco doesn’t want to go into a care facility, and I don’t blame her. The closest one with open spots is in the next county. And with my work schedule, I can’t drive out there every day to check on her. She will be alone there.”
“What about in-home care?” I asked.
“Aunt Coco needs someone at home to take care of her,” Josh said. “And she wants you.”
“Josh, I can’t do it.” My stomach churned with guilt. I took a deep breath, and when I spoke, my voice came out in a whisper. “I’m hanging by a thread here.”
“I know.” Josh cleared his throat as if he was considering his words. “When has Aunt Coco asked us for help? She has always been so independent. We owe her.”
Josh was right, as always. Uncle Gabriel was Dad’s younger brother, and he took us in after our parents’ car accident. But it was his wife, Aunt Coco, who gave us a home.
“You have to step up to the plate, Cedar Bear,” Josh said. “Aunt Coco would want her girl. I can help, but I still have to work. And it’s not exactly like you have a real job.”
I sighed. That was the thing about a brother. He was always brutally honest. We were only a year apart and had grown up like twins after his parents adopted me, but every once in a while, he had to remind me of the pecking order in the family. “I have a job, too.” I didn’t like the defensive tone in my voice.
“Cleaning your hoity-toity friend’s McMansion isn’t a job.” Josh took a deep breath as if calming himself. “Your ex-husband deserves to be shot for the way he treats you.”
I stiffened. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to find a different job, but no one wanted a middle-aged woman who had been out of the job market for two decades. Even my friends had stopped socializing with me like they were afraid a divorce was contagious.
“Once the accountant finishes the financial audit, he will have to pay me alimony,” I said. “House cleaning is a stop gap measure until I get my share of the money.”
My divorce was final two months ago, but my lawyer had insisted on an audit of my ex-husband’s finances because he’d claimed there was no money for spousal support payments. What if something went sideways because I wasn’t in San Jose to bird dog this whole mess?
“And my friends came through for me,” I said. “They are so embarrassed by the cleaning arrangement, they overpay me. Who else could get thirty dollars an hour to scrub toilets? I’m like the toilet queen.”
“Cedar, come home,” Josh whispered. “We need you here.”
“Are you sure Aunt Coco isn’t faking it?” I asked again. What if Aunt Coco had kept my brother in the dark?
Since Aunt Coco and Josh had heard about my ex-husband’s side dish—a woman old enough to be his mother—they had worried that I couldn’t make it on my own. But I had resisted the temptation of letting my family wrap me up with their love. I would suffocate from all that attention. They often overcompensated for my bio mom’s abandonment by giving me the moon. But my pride just couldn’t take it.
“I’m at a conference for the rest of this week,” Josh said. “I got all this information second hand from Babcia. Aunt Coco probably hasn’t recovered enough from her surgery to use her cell phone.”
When I had visited, I exchanged greetings with Aunt Coco’s neighbor, Babcia, a few times. She probably wouldn’t go along with a harebrained scheme for Aunt Coco to fake an injury to get me home.
Josh was silent for a long moment. “Cedar, we need you here. And you need to be here.”
I hung up and stared around the meticulously decorated master bedroom. The walls were painted blue with framed paintings of a beach at sunset above the king-sized bed. I had to wear booties over my shoes to keep the plush white carpet clean. I used to have a room like this—sans the white carpet. What an asinine choice.
Now my one-bedroom furnished apartment above the Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant with its yellow linoleum held down at the corners with duct tape was a constant reminder of how far I had fallen from grace. Even at seven in the morning with all the windows wide open, the apartment smelled of beef noodle soup. The food was delicious, but like anything that was always readily available, it was no longer special. And the constant sounds of the family working together and supporting each other below only made me feel even lonelier.
Darn the prenup I had signed in my twenties. Why was I so young and dumb? I had even insisted my ex-husband drive the new car because I didn’t feel like I’d deserved it. Who knew twenty years could change a person’s perspective about money?
A few minutes later, I found Lisa Hilt lounging next to the pool, flipping through a magazine with a glass of iced tea on the side table next to her. With earbuds in, she didn’t hear me approach until I rapped on the side table to get her attention.
Lisa looked every bit the ditzy trophy wife, wearing a short skirt and tight tube top that would pop a blood vessel if she moved a muscle. Hopefully, in another ten years, she would be in a better situation than me. Or maybe not. From my experience, a trophy wife had an even shorter lifespan than a Hollywood actress.
While I had never been a trophy wife, I’d pretended to be one because that was what my ex-husband wanted. Once his tech company took off, he wanted to be just like all the other tech tycoons with their young housewives. And I was willing to do anything so he wouldn’t have an excuse to trade me in. Not because I couldn’t live without him, but because I finally had a home of my own—a place for me.
Looking up from behind her sunglasses, the fashion magazine forgotten on her lap, Lisa said, “What is it?”
I squinted at the glare from the glistening glass tiles and turquoise water. The stone waterfall burbled and tumbled, drowning out the constant traffic noise in the background. Even a multimillion-dollar home in the Bay Area had to deal with the urban sounds of people living right next to and on top of each other. Wealth was relative, especially when it couldn’t even give you elbow room from your neighbors.
“I need some time off to take care of my aunt. She fell and broke her hip,” I said.
“How much time do you need?” Lisa asked.
“Initially, a few days,” I said, hating the pleading tone that crept into my voice. “I need to get to Mirror Falls first to assess the situation. Maybe I can find someone to provide in-home care for my aunt.”
“Who’s going to clean my house while you’re gone?” Lisa asked.
I shrugged, not quite sure what to say. Swallowing my mounting resentment, I said, “Who cleaned your house before me?”
For a two-person household, Lisa didn’t need someone coming in twice a week. She only wanted me here because she could finally feel one up on me. After all, she was still married to her husband, while I was reduced to scrubbing her toilets.
“I fired her so I could give you this job,” Lisa said, her tone filled with frost.
My expression didn’t change, but I had heard rumors about the former maid and her husband. “I’m sorry about the inconvenience, Lisa. You’re a great fr…friend”—I stumbled over the last word but managed to spit it out—“but my aunt is a little old lady. She needs my help. I will come back as soon as I can.”
“There’s no need to come back.” Lisa picked up her cell phone and tapped on the screen. “I’ve just sent over the funds for today’s work. You can pack up your stuff and leave.”
I blinked, not sure how to react. I had secretly hoped Lisa would get someone to fill in and hold the job for me. She probably realized I would never return to reign over her social circle again. And now it was time to show me the door.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and hoped that my voice sounded normal. “Thank you for all that you have done for me, Lisa. I am grateful to have a friend like you.”
And I was. I still remembered that awful day when I couldn’t pay for groceries because my ex-husband had canceled all the joint credit cards, and there was no money left in the checking account. By the time I got home that evening, all the locks were changed.
And Lisa was the only one who gave me a spare bedroom until I got back on my feet. Yes, it mostly fed her pride, but she could have closed the door in my face. Even my brother couldn’t wire money over fast enough to help me that night when my world fell apart. Things had become weird between Lisa and me for the last few months as I transitioned from friend to employee. But she had been here for me at the beginning of the end of my marriage.
"Good-bye, Lisa," I said.
“Are you really leaving?” Lisa asked, sitting up on the lounge chair. The magazine slid off her lap and onto the ground.
“I need to take care of my aunt,” I said, heading toward the house. What did Lisa expect? That I would grovel for the time off?
“Wait! Who’s going to do my cleaning?” Lisa called after me.
I didn’t answer and continued into the house. As I lugged the vacuum cleaner back into the closet in the hall, I held my head up high and prayed that I wouldn’t start crying until I was back in my truck. I had tried to hold on to the life I’d known by my fingertips, but it looked like that life was finally done with me.
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RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 1, 2023
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