This is an excerpt from my third Kensington novel, A SUMMER IN EUROPE (a story about a young woman's journey of self-discovery as she travels abroad with her adventurous aunt's Sudoku and Mahjongg Club), copyright 2011 by Marilyn Brant. Hope you enjoy!
**From Chapter 1:
An Unexpected Turn of Events**
Steadying a tray of fruit kabobs on her hip, Gwen used her key to enter her aunt’s house at precisely a quarter-to-four and stepped into the ruckus that was an S&M (Sudoku-and-Mahjongg) club meeting.
“Swear to the sweet Lord child, I’m gonna wrap your head up in an Akan kente cloth, Davis, and twist until your neck snaps!” Zenia hollered, raising her voice with practiced theatrics and standing up to add that extra element of menace.
Zenia Bronson, age sixty-two, was no stranger to emoting. She’d been a local stage actress back in the seventies and was now “A Fiber Artist of the Highest Caliber,” or so said the business cards for her shop—Loominous. The current focus of her wrath was white-haired Davis Whitney because he had the misfortune of being their Mah-jongg dealer or leader or something (they called him “East” for a reason Gwen didn’t understand) in a fierce game against the formidable Youngs.
Alex and Connie Sue Young were a married couple, ages seventy-two and sixty-nine, respectively, who’d both honed their math and gaming skills—and padded their retirement funds—by playing the riverboat casino circuit. One might say that no one won easily against either Alex or Connie Sue. One might also say that Zenia did not accept defeat in any arena without finger-pointing, mild profanity and an onslaught of creative threats.
“You may have won a measly $126,000 on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ once, but until you learn how to pick and discard the damn tiles, you’re as worthless as a pair of circular needles on a jack loom,” Zenia spouted, tugging on a couple of her long braids—dyed strands of jet-black and burgundy, entwined—in a show of agitation and disgust.
Gwen was barely conversant in the rules of Mah-jongg, but she was pretty sure Zenia wasn’t happy with her thirteen-tile hand and wanted to “pick ahead.” Davis, a retired calculus teacher, had apparently thwarted her by citing some rule specific to the version they were playing and dared to call her on cheating for “wanting to look at her future”—whatever that meant. So, the tall, imposing woman huffed, puffed and stabbed her silver-and-purple-glittered index fingernail in the general direction of Davis’s heart, but he just yawned, refusing to budge on the issue. The Youngs ignored her rant and waved Gwen deeper inside the den.
“Your auntie is in the kitchen,” Connie Sue said helpfully. “You go put that tray down and come back and talk to me, you hear?
“Sure,” Gwen said.
Alex patted his wife’s arm affectionately and said to Gwen, “And we wouldn’t be opposed to you bringin’ us a coupla Hester’s lemon squares since you’re headed that-a way.” He shot Zenia a devilish look. “‘Course, the game’ll probably be over soon, and we’ll be able to get up and grab ‘em ourselves.”
Zenia crossed her arms, sat herself back down and glared at Alex. “You got a winning hand already?”
He examined his rack of tiles and the current year’s Mah-jongg card that listed every possible winning combination. “Nope,” he said with a smirk.
“Then you shut your fool mouth and play.”
Connie Sue and Alex laughed, and even Davis broke into a grin. Gwen slid away from the foursome and escaped into the kitchen.
“Gwennie!” her aunt cried when she spotted her. “You got here just in time.” Aunt Beatrice, who’d been chatting with Miss Hester Greenwald over vodka-spiked glasses of Fresca (her aunt’s favorite drink), broke off her conversation and wrapped her slender but wiry arms around her niece. Despite being a head shorter than Gwen and about forty pounds lighter, Beatrice still managed to crush her with the embrace. It was all Gwen could do to keep breathing and to not drop the fruit kabobs.
“Hi, Aunt Bea,” Gwen rasped, sucking in a lungful of air when her aunt let go. “Where would you like me to put these?”
“Oooh, I’ll take ‘em for you,” Hester said, yanking the tray out of Gwen’s hands. “What’cha got in here?” Hester, the oldest member of the group at age ninety, a “lifelong bachelorette,” as she’d say, and a former schoolteacher “from back in the days of wooly mammoths and real liberals,” never hesitated to take charge if she felt leadership was needed.
She ripped the foil off the platter and studied the kabobs. “Very…colorful, Gwendolyn,” Hester pronounced. “And I like the way you worked in all that spatial geometry, too.” She gingerly held up a kabob, studying the watermelon spheres and the cantaloupe cubes.
“Ovals, cylinders and trapezoids, oh, my!” Aunt Bea contributed, making note of the green grapes, banana chunks and pineapple wedges as well. “Very thoughtful of you to go to all this trouble, dear, but it’s your birthday. We’re here to treat you.”
Gwen was about to protest that she didn’t need any special treatment when Hester broke in. “How was your big birthday lunch with that boyfriend of yours?” The old woman leaned forward. “He get’cha anything good?”
Gwen noticed that, even though her aunt was making a show of arranging the kabobs, she was listening. Attentively.
“Yes,” Gwen told Hester. “A very nice pair of pearl earrings.” She smiled warmly at her and tried to sound very upbeat about it.
Nevertheless, Hester blinked her paper-thin eyelids and took a step back. “What?” The elderly lady snorted. “After all this time together, just some li’l pearl earrings? Not even diamonds? Humph.”
Aunt Bea frowned. “No, uh, other jewelry?”
Gwen shook her head and saw her aunt and Hester exchange a pointed glance. Quickly, Gwen added, “But the earrings are really lovely,” hoping to diffuse her aunt’s silent condemnation and defend an absent Richard from Hester’s obvious disapproval, too.
She’d made the mistake of bringing him to an S&M gathering once, and Richard had hated every second of it. Although he was unfailingly courteous while in her aunt’s home, once he was out of it, he let it be known to her that “the chaos, disorder and unnatural degree of impulsivity” of the club members made him uncomfortable. While Gwen often felt the same way about them herself, her discomfort was frequently, although far from entirely, tempered by her understanding that they were well intentioned. Even when they were being intrusive and embarrassingly immature.
For example, at that very moment, Hester, who’d crossed her arms like a petulant teen, pursed her lips into a credible sneer, hitched her hip to one side and huffed, “Well, we’ll show him. Don’t you worry, dearie. We got you a good gift.”
Before Gwen could so much as open her mouth to reply, Dr. Louie, wearing one of his S&M t-shirts and an absurdly festooned sombrero, strode into the room with a massive pan in his hands and announced, “Who wants some smoked-barbeque spare ribs?”
Matilda Riesling, trailing him as usual, carrying a ginormous platter and wearing her rival S&M t-shirt and several bright strands of Mardi Gras beads around her neck, said “Smashed potato pie, people!”
At that, the Mah-jongg players in the other room immediately abandoned their tiles and pushed their way into the kitchen to claim sturdy paper plates for sampling the vast array of rich and tasty dishes decorating her aunt’s table and counters. Only Connie Sue and Davis were adventurous enough to try “one of them healthy fruit kabobs” and, in Davis’s case, it was only because he wanted to show Alex how to construct a model of a water molecule. The melon balls and grapes proved rather helpful.
Zenia, Hester and Aunt Bea were huddled in a corner gossiping about something. Gwen caught them sneaking furtive glances at her a few times while the rest of the S&M crowd grilled Gwen about her summer vacation plans, her luncheon with Richard and, alternately, her favorite sauces or glazes. She didn’t have many opinions on the latter. She’d never been one of those foodie types like her aunt. She’d halfheartedly put a few items on her plate, but Connie Sue forced a leg of fried chicken on her—“Why, it’s my Texan mama’s special recipe”—and Matilda was a potato-pie pusher, so Gwen nibbled on those while, at the same time, trying to keep at bay the growing tension headache hovering at her temples.
The group was abuzz with excitement that night since many of them would be leaving on a big trip in just a few days and this was the last time they’d all be together for a number of weeks. Gwen was relieved she’d only have to deal with her aunt and a couple of random club members while the rest were away. Aunt Bea would probably make Gwen watch “The Bold and the Beautiful” with her once or twice a week to make up for Zenia’s absence, as the two of them shared a fanatical attachment to the soap, but that was a small price to pay for not being pummeled with personal questions by a flock of nosy seniors.
She looked around and made note of the connections between these old pals. Couples like Connie Sue and Alex, who’d been married for almost five decades, stood out for her. Would that be her and Richard someday?
She chatted with the others, too, some of whom had been friends for almost as long. Davis slipped away to put on some old music—Frank Sinatra and stuff that’d been popular back in the forties, fifties and sixties—reminding Gwen of her parents.
The S&M club had been together for nearly twenty years, through marriages, divorces, deaths, the birth of grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Zenia was a relatively new member. Hester was a founding member, who’d met Aunt Bea at some community center social a decade before and reeled her in. Even Gwen’s dad, before he’d died two years ago, had been involved periodically with the group, making the trek from Waverly to Dubuque for an occasional gathering or tournament.
“I’m more on the Sudoku side,” he’d confided in Gwen once. “Don’t know how anybody keeps those Mah-jongg rules straight.”
Gwen smiled at the memory and glanced around her aunt’s house, a disconcerting study in a non-updated 1970s decorating style. The colors—a clash of dark greens, old-fashioned creams and burnt oranges—simulated the visual effect of Zenia’s green-bean casserole. Gwen had difficulty stomaching both.
However, on the wall was a photograph of Aunt Bea with her kid sister Madeline, who was Gwen’s mother. Gwen couldn’t help but stare at the picture of the two young women. It was one she paused to examine every time she visited her aunt. Her mom had been about her age when the photo was snapped.
It was odd to think of that. She’d only lived to forty…only ten years more than me. Gwen tried to turn down the fear this thought created in her, the familiar what-am-I-gonna-do-with-my-life refrain that haunted her whenever she realized that she, too, could just die any day without warning. A brain aneurysm could unexpectedly cut short her time on Earth, just as it did with her mom. This depressed Gwen and made her want to grasp hold of life a tiny bit more. But she’d also vowed when she was young to be more careful about her every choice. She’d play it safe wherever she possibly could.
She gazed longer at the picture, imagining her mom swaying to the oldies song that was playing and her aunt singing beside her. Remembering her dad, too, and Bea’s husband, Uncle Freddy, who was no longer with them either. Missing them.
She blinked those thoughts away when Connie Sue stepped near her and asked yet another question about Gwen’s summer schedule. Non-teachers were always so interested in what teachers did over those long vacations. She answered politely but couldn’t help but wonder why, after a day that didn’t feel remotely celebratory to her, she was still here, amidst these kindly but rather prying elderly puzzle solvers and game players, eating heavy foods and missing her parents, when all she wanted to do was go home, take a bath and play her CDs.
A chorus of “Happy Birthday” roused her into greater awareness of the rest of the group. Her aunt, who’d managed to light candles on a big, chocolate, sprinkle-covered birthday cake sometime during Gwen’s conversation with Connie Sue, came forward in song and, with a couple of balloons in hand, demanded Gwen’s attention.
“Thanks, Aunt Bea. Thanks, everyone,” Gwen said, when the singing ceased, appreciating their thoughtfulness although it made her headache reach a painful crescendo.
“Well, make a wish and blow out your candles!” Zenia demanded, her dark eyes twinkling so much Gwen was sure these must be trick lights.
Still, she thought about her wish: To be happy, secure, loved by someone, and not so very afraid her life would end before she got to experience this. She took a breath and blew.
Every candle went out. All except one.
“Oooh!” Aunt Bea said. “That’s good.”
Gwen was about to extinguish this last one but stopped mid-breath. “Why? Why’s that good? I didn’t get them all.”
Her aunt laughed and a few of the older women chuckled. “Because, Gwennie, that means there’s room for surprises.”
Gwen bit her lip and forced a small smile at Bea. She’d had plenty of surprises in her life. She didn’t like them or desire more. Of course, she didn’t say that aloud. She blew out the last glowing candle.
Soon the cake was cut and everyone had gathered around the table to collect their piece and offer their good wishes.
“Take the first bite, honey,” Connie Sue urged, and Gwen obliged.
“Mmm. Delicious,” Gwen said, not untruthfully, although, like everything her aunt made, there was more butter and sugar in the batter than absolutely necessary. “Thanks.”
“Give her the card,” Hester said, elbowing Aunt Bea.
Bea looked around. “Who’s got it?”
Dr. Louie pulled it out of his back pocket and waved it in the air. “Everybody sign it?”
“Yep,” “Yes,” “Ah-ha” and “Of course, you numbskull!” followed.
He handed the peach-colored envelope to Gwen and she pulled out the card within. The scripty lettering on the front read “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes” and featured a gray hippopotamus, a cardinal and two fluffy white sheep all in a row. In spite of herself, Gwen laughed.
Then she opened the card.
Inside, there were signatures from everyone in the S&M club and, also, there was a photograph. This photograph wasn’t one she felt in any way sentimental about, but it did serve to confuse her. Why give her this? It was a picture of a geographical map of Europe with what looked like red string connecting the major cities in a crooked line from London to Rome. Some new form of “art,” perhaps, that Zenia was into?
“Um, thanks,” Gwen said. The club members around her were giggling—even the more solemn men, like Davis—which made her a tad apprehensive. She glanced at her aunt, who was positively beaming.
“Gwennie,” Aunt Bea began, “we’ve got a little surprise for you.”
Her aunt shot a look at Connie Sue, who raised her eyebrows at Hester and who, in turn, nudged Zenia, who blurted, “Angie’s havin’ a hip replacement.”
“I—I’m sorry to hear that,” Gwen replied, slightly taken aback by the non sequitur. Angie had been hobbling around rather a lot in the past several months and her husband Thomas, at age seventy-five, had insisted on pushing her in a wheelchair, which she hated. The surgery was unfortunate, of course, but hardly surprising. “I hope she’ll recover quickly.”
“That woman would do anything to get out of a bet!” Zenia ranted, swiping a few beads of sweat off her deep-brown forehead with the sleeve of her dazzling green-and-gold tunic and pacing across the room and back. “Said she’d climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower with me.” She huffed. “Wimped her way out of it.”
Gwen squinted at her and nodded slowly. Perhaps the combination of all of the carbs in the potatoes, the cake and the lemon bars were getting to the older lady. Zenia had to watch her blood sugar. “That’s too bad,” Gwen said, wondering if she should offer the woman a glass of water or, maybe, a comfortable chair in which to sit down.
“What Zenia means, dear,” her aunt interrupted, “is that Angie and Thomas aren’t going to be taking the trip with the group.”
The trip. The trip. Some madcap bus tour through Europe, complete with a stop at a Sudoku festival in Brussels. Gwen pursed her lips to keep from sighing. She’d heard rather enough about “The Trip” in the months prior and altogether too much that night. She’d been so relieved when her aunt claimed lack of interest in the month-long jaunt… She didn’t want to have to worry about Bea frolicking around like an adolescent through the streets of Paris or getting lost in the Alps or hooking up with some Italian octogenarian or anything.
Then it hit her.
The careful explanation. The photograph of that map. The freaky focus on how surprises were “a good thing.”
The first wave of alarm started like slow tsunami and rose to dangerous heights before the realization drenched her in dread. She stared at Aunt Beatrice, praying she’d somehow completely misunderstood.
“So, I bought their tickets and transferred them to our names,” her aunt said brightly. “We’re going on the trip instead.”
“Surprise!” the S&M club members cried in gleeful harmony.
Gwen’s heart paused, as if not sure whether it should keep beating. The anxiety at the prospect of undertaking such a journey with this nearly insane crew tangoed with the allure of her first foreign adventure. I could see a world I’ve only read about…
“Oh, my God,” she murmured to herself, but no one, not even her aunt, heard her.
“And we leave in two days,” Hester said with a hearty cackle. “So you’d better start packing!”