“You’re skinny. How much weight have you lost this week?” Mike’s big hand molded against her ribcage and slid around to the front of her charcoal dress, pressed up beneath her breasts as his reflection towered over her in her closet door mirror. He dropped his head and sniffed her hair like a dog. “You smell good though.”
“Don’t say ‘skinny’ like it’s a bad thing,” Delta chastised as she fastened her teardrop earrings into place.
“You were skinny to start with, though.” He pulled her back against him with just the one hand, a sort of almost-hug. He was hands-on anyway, but it felt like he’d been holding her up, waiting and ready to catch her while she was sick. It would have bothered her if she’d thought it was a macho, possessive behavior. But she was starting to learn that it wasn’t about that; it was about affection and attachment and him wanting excuses to touch her.
She brushed a finger across the shining crown charm around her neck and glanced up at his reflection to see him watching her. “What?”
“Are you sure you feel up to this?”
She was still a little pale and shaky, and only just getting reacquainted with solid foods. She’d lost eleven pounds in two days and was exhausted because of it. But it was Christmas Eve and Mike was expected at his mother’s house at six. The prospect of another visit with the Walker clan was a strain on her fragile digestive system, but where Mike was going, she was going. He wasn’t the only one with affection and attachment issues now.
“Yes,” she said with a smile she didn’t quite feel. “I feel really good today.”
He kissed the top of her head and said, “you’re lying,” against her hair before he let go of her and stepped away.
The Walkers had a massive tree that was too big for the room, wedged between the mantel and the window. Most of the ornaments looked like they’d been handmade by the kids years ago – painted glass balls and hard baked gingerbread men, popsicle stick Stars of David and plastic spoon reindeer with red pom-pom noses. Somehow, Delta laid eyes on the tinsel and colored lights and red strands of beads, said, “It’s lovely,” and sounded halfway sincere.
“It’s tolerable,” Mike’s older sister Jessica amended. She was in a simple red sheathe dress, a glass of wine held loosely in one hand, and Delta wondered if she might be the one other Walker she might actually have something in common with. “Come on. Are you any good in the kitchen?”
Delta had spent countless hours in the kitchen with Mrs. Miller and her husband, the Brooks’ chef, pouring and measuring and boiling and learning how to do what her mother never could. “I’m okay,” she said, and followed Jessica down the hall and into the laminate and linoleum nightmare that was Beth Walker’s kitchen. There were too many silk plants and too many ceramic birds and wallpaper that should have been outlawed. Beth was in a red and green Christmas sweater complete with Santa Claus face, a black skirt and flats that had seen better days. Her hair was clipped on top of her head, but loose strands were curling in the steam that hissed up from the skillet she stood over.
“Oh, Jessie,” she said distractedly as they entered, “pull the roast out of the oven, honey.”
Jessica picked oven mitts up off the counter and did as asked, leaving Delta standing alone and awkward in the threshold.
Beth’s eyes came to her, a fast, uncertain darting, and then returned to the roast she browned. “Delta…um…I’d hate for you to get your dress dirty. Jo’s setting the table. You could help her with that.”
She shouldn’t have been, but Delta was a little bit offended. Who was to say she couldn’t tie an apron on over her dress and whip the potatoes? Beth Walker, apparently. But she dipped her head in a nod and backtracked down the hall to the dining room. Jo was pulling what was probably the good china out of the cabinet against the far wall and stacking it on the edge of the table. She had piles of flatware and napkins in a wadded up bundle. As if her jeans and dirty socks weren’t enough proof, she clearly didn’t know a thing about tablescapes. Or anything feminine. Her eyes were unfriendly as they lifted from the short stack of plates she added to those she’d already pulled.
“Your mom said you needed help,” Delta offered and earned a displeased frown.
“I can’t cook. Now I can’t even set the table, apparently.”
“Well…the napkins are probably wrinkled.”
“So?” Jo challenged. She picked up a plate and set it at an empty place setting. “We’re going to wipe our mouths with them.” She gathered knife, fork, and spoon, flanked the plate with them, but not in the right order.
“Do you actually need help setting the table? I could show you how.” Delta asked, truly curious. It was hard to imagine that someone could get to twenty-one without knowing which side of the plate the fork went on, but Jo had somehow managed. Maybe it wasn’t even her fault. Her name was Jo after all, and maybe the tomboy curse of Jo March was inescapable.
“Gee, thanks,” Jo said to the table as she went for another plate. “I don’t know how I’d live without knowing where the forks go.”
Delta’s hands found her hips – they were bony thanks to the tuna salad from Highrise Deli – and formed a retort she knew she couldn’t use. Thoroughly miffed, she knew her hands were tied by the necklace around her throat, by the gentle brush of Mike’s hand across her forehead two nights before, by the sight of him making her toast in her kitchen and the feel of his big, strong fingers laced with hers at the hospital. These people were offensive, but they were his family, and if she wanted him, she’d have to learn to deal with all of them.
“Fine,” she said coolly to Jo and left her to make a fool of herself, returning to the living room and the arm of the sofa beside Mike.
He was talking to his brother Walt about some sort of dull problem Walt was having with his trash pickup service, but flicked a glance up to her face, a hand closing over her knee in silent question.
She tidied a piece of his short blonde hair and forced a smile.
Dinner was beef tenderloin with potatoes, green beans, salad and big fluffy rolls. None of it was fancy or artfully arranged, but it smelled like heaven. Or, at least, it would have, if Delta’s stomach wasn’t still tender and angry. She put exactly five bean pods and a small dollop of potatoes on her plate that she picked at with her fork. She hoped no one would notice, but of course, that was impossible. She was some exotic bird in the Walkers’ eyes – mysterious and never before seen and possibly ugly.
“Delta, you’re not having roast?” Beth asked in a voice that wavered just enough to reveal how self-conscious and nervous she was.
“No, I…” Beth’s pinched expression told her there was no way to say this acceptably. “I don’t eat red meat.”
Jo smirked down into her plate and Jordan gave a little twitch of his eyebrows.
Randy frowned, not unkindly, but it was still a frown. “You’re not one of those – what do they call ‘em – vegans, are you?”
And what if she was? She didn’t get the feeling that would be welcome news. “No, I -,”
“She’s been sick,” Mike stepped in, and she felt his shoe butting up against hers under the table. “She had really bad food poisoning a couple days ago and she’s not back to her fighting weight yet.”
If he’d intended to quiet their curiosities, he’d done the opposite.
“Oh, no!” Gwen said. “That’s awful. Where’d you eat?”
“The Highrise Deli.”
“Down the street from Phipps?” Jessica asked.
“That place is disgusting,” her husband, Dylan said, lip curled in demonstration.
“Believe me, I know that now,” Delta said with a little sigh.
“I didn’t know you’d been sick,” Beth fretted. “I would have made something else if I’d known.” The look she tossed to Mike was absolutely wounded.
“Don’t get upset, Mom,” Jessica said.
“Well, I would have liked to know -,”
“The potatoes are fine, Mrs. Walker,” Delta offered with a tight smile that was an effort. “The doctor said to stick to just starches until I was feeling back to normal.”
“Doctor?” her pale brows knitted together. “It was bad enough you had to go to the doctor?”
“She passed out,” Mike blurted before she could stop him. “She had to go to the ER and get hydrated.”
“Oh my God!” Beth gasped. “Michael, you didn’t say anything.”
“Didn’t know I needed to,” he grumbled.
“I’m always in the dark with you these days,” his mother complained.
Delta glanced up to find Randy watching her. “You’re not pregnant, are you?” he asked.
His wife smacked at his arm immediately and he had the grace to look sheepish, but all Delta heard was another father asking her if she was pregnant. Mike’s hand found her leg beneath the table, but it didn’t make the moment any less awkward or painful. She stared at her plate and tried to pretend none of them existed.
The family would open presents the next morning and be joined by a boatload of relatives for lunch the next day. Mike informed her of this in a whisper as the dinner plates were cleared away and then asked if she was ready to, “blow this hole.”
Delta made the awkward goodbye rounds, thankful that an end to the evening was in sight. She wanted nothing more than to skip Jo, but her ingrained sense of propriety won out and she went in search of the youngest Walker against her better judgment.
Jo was back in the empty dining room, just barely visible thanks to the light from the streetlamp outside that filtered through the windows. She was sitting in the sill, arms wrapped tight around herself, one leg drawn up and crossed over the other. In profile, her face looked even smaller and more delicate, fairy-like almost, her eyes luminous half-disks bright with the streetlight. She was lost somewhere in her head – maybe in 2003 in a photo booth with her older brother’s best friend. Maybe some other moment. The grim, downward twist of her mouth reminded Delta of Tam, and left her almost curious enough about what had happened to the two of them to actually care.
“We’re heading out,” she said finally, and thought Jo gave the slightest twitch of surprise that she tried to hide. “Merry Christmas, Jo.”
“Hmm. Merry Christmas,” she said to the window without turning.
It was a shame things hadn’t worked out between her and Tam – they were both miserable and rude enough to deserve each other.
Both of Mike’s parents hugged her, but the gestures felt empty. There was an undercurrent of stress in every moment that hung between her and Mike’s mother and she couldn’t explain it or shift the tide of it. Beth was either intimidated or embarrassed or overly protective of her son, and Delta hadn’t the skills to deal with any of the three.
When the front door closed behind them, the cold caress of December air against her face was wonderful. It was crisp and crystalline and blessedly free of uneasy small talk. Delta released a deep breath that felt like it caved her ribs in together and led the way down the sidewalk to the Beemer.
Mike didn’t speak until he’d opened her door and handed her down into the passenger seat. He braced a hand along the roof of the car and gave her a look through the darkness that was full of apology, the streetlight touching the lines on his face. “I don’t think they mean to be like that,” he said, which surprised her. She’d expected an outright tirade about his family. “They’re just…” he twitched a frown. “I dunno. They’re weird about new people coming into the family, I guess.”
“You haven’t ever brought a girl home, have you?” she guessed, and was rewarded with a chuckle.
Somehow, that felt good. Good like the way the night was giving her goose bumps. Good like the way tension was fading and being replaced by the kind of internal warmth she’d wanted for this night.
“It’s cold out,” she pulled her legs up into the car, “let’s go home.”
He closed the door so he could walk around and she realized, as her breath fogged a patch of window glass, that she didn’t know where home would lead him. She didn’t really care.