CHAPTER 29 of Our Orbit
That evening the Daniel Winslows were first to arrive. They pulled into the Fletchers’ driveway in a navy blue Lincoln Town Car, driven by a surprise guest. At the door, Deanne found the old couple flanked by Rachelle on one side and on the other by a tall, thin woman of about Rick’s age, early thirties, in a black pantsuit and emerald crepe blouse. Her wrists jingled with gold charms that matched the chains and pendant around her long neck.
Miriam dashed forward to hug the unexpected visitor. “Cousin Corinne!” she exclaimed. Next to her heavyset parents, in their customary sweatsuit and work clothes, Corinne resembled a queen among the peasants. She wore a wave of ash blond hair sculpted above an angular face.
Aunt Melanie handed Deanne a pie plate under a tent of aluminum foil—“Just a little something”—and a stack of holiday napkins with designs of Indian corn. In a whisper, she added, “From the Senior Center. They can spare a few.”
In the living room, it proved tricky getting conversation underway. Deanne and Melanie both started talking at once, then both fell silent. Rick and Corinne did the same thing. Relief arrived in the form of Kayla and Chad running into the room. They shook hands with Corinne and gave the elder Winslows willing hugs. Miriam led them in a performance of “You Are My Sunshine” (without costumes or make-up) and “Little Rabbit in the Woods.”
The doorbell sounded again. Rick and Deanne both went to greet the new guests, a young couple who looked like teenagers headed to a semi-formal dance. In contrast to his straight-laced brother, Isaac wore his hair loose to the shoulders. It was nearly black, shiny and lank, in the manner of a dashing violinist. He wore a pristine white T-shirt, indigo jeans, and a black satin windbreaker with a red and gold dragon embroidered over the shoulders.
“Good to meet you,” Isaac said with a crooked but sincere-seeming grin. “Better late than never.” He looked delicate beside his wife. Stephanie stood some five inches taller and easily outweighed him by fifty pounds. She wore a long skirt and matching over-blouse in a sunflower print that complimented her burgundy hair.
“What a nice yard you have,” Stephanie said. “And what a nice house.”
On their feet again, the earlier arrivals came to greet their relatives. Everyone talked at once. Miriam jumped up and down, clutching Isaac’s hands. Introductions were repeated, and Kayla and Chad collected more hugs. When things quieted down, the children performed their songs again.
Melanie Winslow suggested they all sing “We Gather Together.”
“Remember?” she said, turning to Rachelle. “Your momma’s favorite.”
On a variety of pitches, they made it through three full verses. The Winslow girls struck up a harmony.
Lovely, Deanne thought. I did the right thing, inviting everyone over.
The Winslows did look pleased, and the children were in their glory with all the positive attention. Only Rachelle seemed withdrawn. Her eyes skirted people’s faces, then dropped to the carpet. In a denim skirt and shapeless, rust-colored sweater, she looked like a thrift-store waif. Bet some nicer clothes would cheer her up, Deanne thought. She made a mental addition to her Christmas list.
Josh and the Weavers had not RSVP’d. Since Deanne invited them, she’d learned about the complaint Josh had filed with the Children’s Services office. It seemed unlikely his branch of the family would put in an appearance, so at a quarter to eight, she invited the guests to the dining room. She had made a pumpkin and a pecan pie with vanilla ice cream and a can of whip on hand. Melanie Winslow’s pie was banana cream. Stephanie contributed a plate of candy buckeyes. The three women poured coffee, tea, and cider for the men, children, and Cousin Corinne, who took the seat offered her at table, vowing to “help by keepin’ out of the way.”
“I remember you from high school,” Isaac told Rick. “Guess I would’ve had you if I’d got up the guts to take chemistry.”
“Did you go out for a sport?” Rick asked. “I coach track and field.”
“Nah.” The young man laughed. “Way too lazy.”
Aunt Melanie quizzed Kayla and Chad about the dishes their grandma cooked for Turkey Day. Corinne leaned close to Rachelle’s chair, one arm stretched over the backrest, as the two of them exchanged quiet words. Deanne did her best to engage Uncle Dan. He allowed as how he used to hunt over by her family’s pastureland. Deanne was intrigued, if also repelled, to learn that he’d cured hides the old-fashioned way—with fresh brains.
“Ever’ critter got enough brain to do its own skin,” he said.
When seconds were passed around, Corinne got up and headed for the kitchen. She dropped a hand to Deanne’s shoulder.
“Can I get you something?” Deanne asked.
“Thought I’d step out for a smoke. Keep me company?”
It was dark outside and cold. Deanne switched on a light over the back step. She slipped on a fleece jacket from one of the hooks by the door and offered her guest one, as well. She brushed a pile of curled-up leaves off the picnic table.
Corinne sat on the end of the bench. She pulled cigarettes from a neat leather purse and lit up, exhaling a long whoooo.
“I think it’s great what you’re doing,” Corinne said. “I want you to know that.”
“Thanks,” Deanne said.
“I can tell Miriam’s doing real good here. She’s happy. Blossoming.”
“I appreciate you saying that.” Nice to hear, of course, but it was not hard to sense a flipside coming.
“I suppose you think our family is pretty much a train wreck.”
“Not at all. We’re very fond of your parents.”
“I’m not saying that to be nasty. When a man gets hauled to jail and leaves his kids? That’s my definition of a train wreck.”
“I’m glad we could help.”
Corinne shot Deanne a sharp look. Again she blew a gust of smoke. “I’d like to fill you in on a few things.”
Deanne’s eyebrows went up.
“You probably noticed my dad has some wacky ideas. It’s not mental illness, doesn’t run in the family. He’s a disabled veteran. It’s connected to that.”
“I had no idea,” Deanne said. But what a relief!
“And the thing with Levi… Well, I guess you know he’s a fanatic.”
“Was he part of this militia movement, like up in Michigan?” Those guys with their campouts and gun-love were more than a bit scary.
“Arm-chair supporter,” Corinne said. “What you need to understand is, Levi raised the boys to be as fanatical as him. With Isaac, it didn’t take, but Josh buys into the Christian patriarchy business. That’s why he thinks he can boss the girls around.” She flicked ash into the grass, ignoring the saucer Deanne had placed on the table. “I’m sure you noticed the kids all have Old Testament names. That includes Rachelle. You know why they decided to spell it with two L’s? It’s not for pronunciation.”
Corinne paused, gave a look like she had some hilarious secret.
“To give it more of a French-type spelling. Levi wanted it to look less Jewish.” Corinne stamped her foot, snorted with laughter.
My God—surely this was an embarrassment, even if the woman thought it made a good story. Should I laugh? Deanne wondered. Act surprised?
“Don’t you get it? He loves the old patriarchs. He’s named for one! But he doesn’t like their names to look so Jewish!”
Deanne gave Corinne’s forearm a squeeze. While she was casting about for something to say, she heard the backdoor swing open. Miriam and Kayla leaned out at the top of the steps.
Kayla called, “More people are here for pie. Josh and his girlfriend.”
Rachelle came up behind the little girls and pushed her way out the door, nearly knocking Kayla down. She crossed to the picnic table and stopped beside her cousin. With a stiff jerk of her foot, she gave the bench a mute kick.
“Josh here?” Corinne asked in a low voice.
“That’s right,” Rachelle said.
Deanne stood and touched Rachelle’s shoulder. “I wanted to invite everyone,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me there might be…friction.” She stepped toward the house and ushered the children inside. With a look back she added, “You two take your time.”
* * *
Josh was at the table with Isaac and Rick and Uncle Dan. Words like “Japanese maple” and “tons of tulip bulbs” sounded in the conversation, so things seemed cordial enough. Melanie had hunted up clean cutlery, and Deanne lifted slices of banana cream pie for the latecomers. She sat down next to Rick.
The backdoor opened and closed softly. Corinne returned to the table. Rachelle could be heard cutting through the kitchen to the living room, where Stephanie had started a board game with the children.
“Let us pray,” Josh said.
Above a white dress shirt, his face wore a grave expression. Who could tell what the guy was thinking, Deanne wondered, showing up like this after so many refusals?
Josh took Bekka’s hand on his right and Isaac’s on his left. Those still eating set down their forks and closed the circle.
But Josh looked toward the living room and raised his voice. “Could we all join in, here? Let’s thank the Lord for bringing us together.”
Deanne caught Rick’s eye. He gave a dry smirk.
“Steph’s got the kids occupied,” Isaac said. “Let ‘em play.”
But Stephanie seemed ready to accommodate. She came to the table, took Chad on her lap. Kayla and Miriam scrambled together on a vacant seat. Last of all, Rachelle stationed herself between Corinne’s chair and Deanne’s.
Everyone joined hands again.
Josh furrowed his brow and spoke. “How righteous are Your ways, Lord, to bring Your children together for a time of thanks after long days apart. We praise Your divine wisdom. We ask that You look down on us with favor and teach us every day to be Your faithful people. To guide us on the one true path.”
“Amen,” Melanie said.
“That You teach us to forsake every form of evil.”
“Amen,” Melanie repeated.
“And help us through Your Holy Word to reject the ways of Satan. Let us shun sin and repent of its power to defile. For what we do in the dark will be brought to light. Damnation in the lake of fire awaits—”
“A-men,” Rick said decisively. He rapped the table twice with his knuckles, rose to his feet, and spoke in a hearty tone. “I’d like to add that Dee and I appreciate all of you joining us to celebrate the holiday. I know Miriam is glad to see everybody, and so are we. And please—” He gestured toward the remaining desserts. “No calorie-counting tonight.”
Restrained laughter rippled over the table.
Deanne gave Rick a veiled smile. Good job, babe! The look on Josh’s face was an odd mix of smugness and disgust, like he expected no less from the infidel foster family than to have his prayer cut short in favor of pie and ice cream.
Stephanie and the children returned to the living room. Rick fetched the coffeepot and refilled Uncle Daniel’s cup. Deanne urged Bekka to enjoy her cider while it was still warm.
But Rachelle hadn’t moved. She made no effort to mute the anger in her voice as she said, “Can we leave now, Uncle Dan?”
When Josh shot her a look, Rachelle said, “What? What do you want from me?”
He fired back. “I want God’s grace for you. God’s forgiveness.”
“Peace,” Isaac said, his hands raised in the air. “Let there be peace, you two.” He stood and clapped his hands on his brother’s shoulders. Then he turned to Uncle Dan and started his good-byes.
Deanne felt relieved to beat a retreat through the kitchen, if only to fetch coats. One step into the living room, however, and she was waylaid by Corinne. Now the woman was looking for the powder room. Deanne showed her to the hallway and reached in to flip the light switch, a simple courtesy. To her astonishment, Corinne shoved her into the bathroom, pulled the door behind them, and pressed the lock.
“Listen,” the woman said, “I need to finish telling you something.”
“What is it? Just tell me.”
At the sink, this strange guest turned the faucet so water gushed at a noisy clip. Even so, she kept her voice quiet. “You heard that whole sin-and-forgiveness routine? Pulls that every time he gets Rachelle in his sites. He’s out to wear her down.”
“What’s he trying to prove?”
“He suspects. Doesn’t know, but he suspects. I’m sorry to say—he’s right.”
“Right about what?”
“One night last winter, Rachelle turned up at my folks’ house. Begged my mom to go to Columbus and visit me. ‘Could she please go stay with Corinne? Oh please, could she go?’ So I said sure. Drove down, brought her home with me. Supposedly for a weekend.”
“But she stayed longer?”
“Not only that. Turned out she had a whole special reason for coming. Wasn’t just to get a break from the trailer.” Corinne’s eyes burned into Deanne’s, then skated away. “The kid had been running wild since before her mom died. Naturally, she discovered boys. You know what I’m saying.”
When Deanne just frowned, Corinne leaned so close tobacco breath flooded the air. A lock of blond hair broke loose from its wave. My God, Deanne realized, the woman is actually frightened.
“Why do country girls come to Franklin County? Don’t you know? We got a special institution called the Women’s Choice Clinic—”
Corinne bent over the counter. The gold chains swung from her neck and seemed to tremble. “I take full blame. Claimed I was Rachelle’s mother, gave my consent. My parents must never find out. It’s the worst sin there could be. But no one has the right to tell that child she profaned her momma’s grave—”
Talk about unwelcome confessions!
“I give my word,” Deanne said stiffly. “I won’t invite Josh over again.”
“There’s something else you can do.”
Deanne gave a broad shrug.
“Don’t let Josh get Miriam on his side.”
With that, Corinne shut off the faucet. She whirled to the door and peeked out in one motion. She flipped off the light and stepped from the room, leaving Deanne in the dark.