"Did you hear me, dear?" Margaret Starrís exasperation filled the line like static.
"Yes, Mom." Egypt tucked the cordless phone between her ear and shoulder then closed the lid on the suitcase. The teeth of the zipper remained four inches apart. Maybe she should have used a bigger suitcase.
A splash of red caught her eye. The American Tourister was larger. It also had a broken clasp. She smacked open the suitcase lid. Wads of sweaters and pants rose above the soft-sided confines. Maybe she should have packed less stuff.
"I donít think you know how hard this is on your sister."
"Weddings are hard on everyone." Egypt buffered her motherís irritation with a well-rehearsed line. Thirteen weddings had taught her somethingóa patient, well-modulated tone calmed fretful brides, harried mothers and a bevy of bridesmaids. Too bad it couldnít shrink the contents of her suitcase. She had packed only the essentials, hadnít she? Air stirred the papers on her coffee table as she swatted the lid closed and took a seat on top. Fabric oozed out the sides.
"Yes, well, this kind of thing just does not happen to me." Irritation chased the anxiety from her motherís voice. "Paris has had her wedding planned since the fourth grade. The dress design was in pink crayon with purple butterflies and blue hearts floating around it. Oh, why did Minnie Houser have to move to Phoenix six weeks before the wedding?"
Egyptís gaze traveled around the small studio apartment. Had she forgotten anything? Undoubtedly. She combed her hands through her short hair then shook the strand from her fingers. Perhaps she should get into the habit of making lists. Heaven knew her mother and sister were constantly giving her pads of paper with cutesy logos and patterns. She picked up a note with hearts stamped across the top. Her sisterís handwriting accused her: Leave on December 22nd at seven a.m. Arrive Dragoonís Springs Country Club at 1:30 p.m. for bridal shower. It was 8:17 a.m. on the twenty-third.
"Guess Paris canít plan everything."
"Egypt!" Disapproval whipped down the line. "That is not a very nice thing to say. You know your sister is under a lot of strain. Weddings are stressful on everyone."
She blinked as a recap of her own words echoed back to her. Merciless monkeys, she had turned into her mother. Egypt shook the unpleasant thought from her head. "I only meant that the quadruple bypass kind of snuck up on Max and Minnie Houser."
She crossed her fingers behind her back. What her mother didnít know wouldnít cause high long distance charges to invade her parentís phone bill.
"Yes, wellÖ" Suspicion dragged the words.
Egyptís stomach flipped in her belly. She had better change the subject quickly. Her gaze flicked to the white confection draped over the back of the Bentwood rocker. "Parisís dress turned out beautifully. Mrs. Houser even sewed iridescent seed beads on the bodice. Lavender butterflies, just like Paris drew when she was ten."
Air hissed through the miles of phone line. "Paris had wanted, dear. Our budgetó"
"She sewed them on for free." The words gushed past Egyptís lips. Her mother hated being interrupted almost as much as she hated glitches in her plans. "She said she owed you something for driving to Phoenix for the fittings. Sewing gave her something to do and stopped her from worrying so much while she sat in the hospital waiting room."
"WellÖ" The scales tipped in her favor. "That was very nice of Minnie. Iíll make certain Paris sends her an extra-special thank you note, maybe even a few pictures."
"Iím certain sheíd appreciate that. She misses Dragoonís Springs." Egypt made one last sweep of the room. She seemed to have everything. "According to Minnie, she hasnít had a nice chat or a decent cup of coffee since she came to the big city." She paused. Her words surfed the gasp of breath in the receiver. "Except for my visits, of course."
"That sounds like Minnie. With all that worry, I should have known there would be a mix-up in the dresses." Plastic swished and satin rustled. "I suppose no real harm has occurred. You have Parisís dress and I have yours. It turned out very lovely, by the way. The color will flatter your skin tone and the style is timeless."
Egypt stuffed the blobs of fabric inside her suitcase. Plastic teeth scraped her flesh. Cold metal bit into the pads of her thumb and index finger. The zipper grumbled along its track then stopped halfway around the corner. The metal tab buttoned the suitcase at a single point, the remaining teeth curled back in a ferocious snarl. A growl rumbled up her throat. She jerked the zipper backwards. Pink silk bubbled around the tab.
"Unbelievable." Egypt rocketed from her seat and glared at the tapestry luggage. "Stupid, idiotic, overgrown handbag."
"I beg your pardon."
"Not you, Mom." Egypt unclenched one fist and strangled the phone. She stormed across the room, bones rattling with every step. Why did this happen every time she was late? Why couldnít everything go right just once? Would the universe come to a crashing halt? Would the cure for cancer be postponed? How important could thwarting her every plan be to world peace? Metal jingled as she yanked open her junk drawer. She scooped up the pliers and stomped back to the mocking baggage. "Itís this stupid luggage. The zipper broke."
"Is that the Marshallsí American Tourister or the Andersonsí Fancy French one?"
"The Andersonsí." Egypt shoved the carry-on into a better position and clamped the phone between her ear and shoulder. Maybe if she backed the zipper up it would catch and hold. The pliers clamped onto the pull-tab. Such a method had worked before. Her knee dug into the soft top; fabric extruded out the side. She released the zipper and prodded her clothes back inside the suitcase.
"Well, that did get a bit of wear on their honeymoon. Everyone knows those airport people toss bags around like footballs." Her motherís monologue gathered steam. Was her mouth pleased to be released from its prison of wedding talk? Or was it simply a reminder that wedding related misery included more people than just the Starr family? "And then they were stopped not once but three times while they toured Europe for all those weeks. You would think since it was made over there it would have been able to survive the rough handling they put it through. Of course, if Sheila hadnít been so determined to visit so many countries on their six-week honeymoonÖ"
Honeymoon. Blood slogged through Egyptís heart. It was only natural to be a little depressed. All of her friends were pairing up like animals before the Flood. Her plight was no different than any other thirty-year-old spinster, no matter the circumstance of the bride and groomís meeting.
Sheesh, after thirteen weddings, she should have constructed a better pep talk than that. Silence buzzed in her ear. Had she missed an opportunity to grunt in support?
"Are you all right, dear?"
Egyptís sigh fluttered her bangs. No missed cue, just the end of her motherís soliloquy. "Yeah, I mean, yes, Mom. Iím fine." She clamped the pliers onto the metal tab and tugged. "I was just thinking if Iíd need a jacket."
"Are you sure thatís whatís bothering you? I mean, you can talk to me about anything. You know that, donít you, dear?"
"I know, Mom." The zipper refused to budge. Egypt yanked. Fabric ripped. The zipper closed as the tab retreated.
"Mrs. Houser did remind me this was the sixteenth time."
Irritation flayed Egyptís skin. For a seamstress, Mrs. Houser needed help with her math. "Fourteenth time, Mom. This will be the fourteenth time Iíve been a bridesmaid."
A rainbow of satin dresses was the consolation prize. Along with her sofa, the rocker, the broken luggageóeven her cat and hamsteróall were the relics of her friendsí abandoned single life, willed to their good friend Egypt.
"Well, youíre bound to be the bride next time." False cheer rang hollowly in her motherís voice. "I mean, you donít have any more single friends left. Do you, Egypt?"
Did she? There always seemed to be a few hovering close by, vultures waiting for a fresh kill. There were bound to be some disappointed ladies at Parisís wedding when Egypt appeared solo. However, that was in Dragoonís Springs, not Phoenix. In Phoenix, she knew only one single woman.
"Well, we did hire a new girl for the holiday season."
"Surely, thatís not long enough to become good friends." Margaret Starr squeaked. "All the girls whoseÖwhose weddings you were in, youíd been friends since childhood."
"I know, Mom. Besides, she has a boyfriend." Nutz jumped onto the suitcase. The marmalade cat rolled onto his back and swatted at a patch of pink fluttering on the back of the sofaís blue slipcover. Egypt tugged a piece of gum out of her pocket. Cinnamon exploded across her tongue. Light sparked off the silver foil as it sailed onto the coffee table. She should probably remove the damaged camisole. Should but wouldnít. Gum popped in her mouth. She already had one side zipped. She only had two to go.
"Well, thatís a relief. Not that I believe youíre cursed or anything, dear."
"No one believes Iím cursed." Egypt yanked the zipper around the corner, tucking clothes inside as she went. "Everyone just comes to me for their husbands."
Nutz jumped onto the sofa back as she slid the baggage off the cushion. She jerked the plastic extension handle up as the carry-on wheels thudded onto the carpet.
Dead air filled the phone connection. "The dress really is lovely. Your sister picked out the turquoise especially to flatter your complexion."
Phase one of bridal pity: a modification of wedding colors to flatter the poor slob whose ex-boyfriend you just happen to be marrying. Phase two: the pairing of said poor slob with an eligible party specifically imported for the occasion. Egypt shuddered as the memories resurrected her dread.
She snapped the bungee cord around her suitcase. If it had been anyone else but her sister she would have bowed out of the wedding. As it was, she must endure the warm-up torture and the coup de grace, phase three. Her favorite. Should phases one or two fail, subject poor slob to endless introductions to single males, including passing waiters and, if necessary, the valet. How long could someone wear a phony smile before the expression became permanent? Hopefully, longer than her sisterís wedding and reception.
"Itís a pretty color."
"And youíll be able to use the dress again." Strain sharpened her motherís voice. "Maybe for that New Yearís party you told me about. Not that we wouldnít want you to spend the holiday with us. I understand all about young single girls, living in the big city and all. We do get Sex and the City up here, you know."
"I do hope you are protecting yourself." Hinges creaked. A door closed. "Sexually, I mean." Her motherís voice dropped to a whisper.
"Mom!" Egypt raised her shoulder, pressing the phone closer to her ear. Was her motherís voice muffled?
"Minnie says they have entire stores devoted to experimentation of a certain sort." Definitely muffled. Her mother had retreated to the closet, that sanctuary where only the most sacred of subjects were discussed on the phoneódivorce, unexpected pregnancies and hurried marriages. "Not that thereís anything wrong with it. Youíre young, and you always were the curious one. There is absolutely no cause for embarrassment. In my day, well, really weó"
"Mo-ther!" Emphasis on both syllables. The tone perfected by teenagers everywhere. Egypt cringed. Why did she always revert to a child whenever she talked with her mother?
Egyptís chest expanded as she filled her lungs with air. She had flirted with the line in the sand long enough. It was time to commit herself to battle. Utterly. Completely. "Iím spending New Yearís in Dragoonís Springs."
"Really?" Disappointment trimmed the happiness in her motherís voice.
"Really." Cowardice beat against her skull. It wasnít too late. She could still back out. Egypt shored up her courage. No surrender, no prisoners. She would spend a week at home, visiting with friends, catching up with family, being the object of pity and speculation and answering impertinent questions. Small-town America. Is it any wonder she left?
"Youíre not still in love with Darrell, are you? He really isnít right for you."
Egypt nodded, rubbed at the ache spreading across her chest. None of them had been. But knowing the truth didnít lessen the sting. "I know, Mom. There were signs. Darrell is obnoxious and controlling, hates pets of any kind, canít dance, despises big band music and would rather buy one front-row ticket to the hockey game than two in the nosebleed seats."
"Heís also marrying your sister, dear."
"Yes," Stitches jumped as she lifted his cage. The teddybear hamster blinked up at her then scurried up the pink plastic tube to the room above. Metal rattled as she secured it to the carry-on with another bungee cord. "Heís perfect for Paris."
"And you are definitely over him?" Will you make trouble at the wedding?
The unspoken question hovered like an eavesdropper on the line. "Yes, Mom. I feel the same about Darrell as I feel for Diego." Exasperated, irritated and not a little perturbed by his existence. "Brotherly feelings, nothing more." Except for the disappointment, not that sheíd mention that to her mother.
"Good. Did I tell you weíve rounded up four eligible men for the wedding?"
Egypt sighed. Phase two and she hadnít even left her apartment. New Yearís Day seemed very far away.
"Of course, three are divorced, but, well, I suppose thatís to be expected. After all, they are in their thirties. Except for Dougóheís forty-one."
Egyptís knees buckled. She bounced twice on the sofa before collapsing into a boneless mass. How had her life come to this? What atrocity had she committed in another life?
"Donít worry, dear. We capped the age at fifty. That would be much too close to your fatherís age. Minnie says we should take their previously married state as a blessing. I mean, they took the plunge once so theyíre not liable to be as gunshy as men in the Big City."
Big City. Egypt struggled against the waves of despondency. She could do this. She had done this before. She liked her single life, preferred living with her hamster and her cat. Men were smelly. They hogged the remote. Her New Yearís resolution involved remaining as far away from them as possible. Her reasoning was sound. Her motherís logic was another story.
"Darrell is from a big city, Mom. So were Adam and Brad and Zachary andó"
"I know that, dear."
One-by-one, the men in her past faced her. Wanted posters hovering above tasteful wedding invitations. Other womenís husbands. She had never been wanted by any of them. Bitterness welled up inside her.
"Only Todd wasnít. I think the mayor should give me a medal or something. Egypt Starr, the woman personally responsible for introducing new blood to Dragoonís Springs, population twenty-four hundred thirteen. No, make that population twenty-four hundred twenty-seven."
She choked on a ragged breath. This should be easy. Why wasnít this easier? She hugged herself close, half-afraid sheíd shatter, half-afraid hers would be the only arms to hold her in the future.
"Thatís not funny, Egypt." Her mother cleared her throat. "Youíll find the right man. Heíll come riding to your rescue and knock you right off your feet."
"I donít believe in fairy tales anymore, Mom." Nutz padded across the sofa, rasped his rough tongue over her white knuckles. Despairís grip eased. She would be all right. Her hand slicked down the catís body. Everything would be all right.
"Thatís precisely why Fate will send Prince Charming to your rescue."
"I definitely do not need rescuing."
The omniscient tone grated on Egyptís nerves. She shoved to her feet. At least, the anger could be channeled. She grabbed her sweater and shoved her arm into the sleeve. "Mother."
"Iím glad youíre staying for New Yearís, dear. That will give your father time to look at your car."
"My car?" Gum lodged in her throat. She coughed it up and pulverized the tasteless mass. That rat fink Darrell had snitched. He was the one whoíd told her to wrap the hoses in duct tape. He was the one who hadnít wanted to waste time while she made the appropriate repairs.
"Darrell mentioned you were having engine troubles, and you know your father."
"My car is fine." Plastic crinkled as she tossed the roll of duct tape and a handful of garbage ties into the grocery bag. It clunked against the cans of cat food and crunched into the hamster seed. Of course, she had continued down the path of madness by wrapping the next hose in the tape, then the next. She had meant to replace them properly. There just never seemed to be any time.
"Iím sure it is, dear. No daughter of mine would make the long drive home without having a properly serviced and maintained car."
"Of course not." Egypt crossed her fingers. If their conversation took any more turns, her fingers might become permanently twisted around each other.
"It was never in question," her mother agreed. "But Darrell mentioned something the other day. And your father just wonít let it go until heís satisfied himself. And, really, dear, whereís the harm in allowing him a little peek under the hood?"
Out-flanked and out-maneuvered. Surrender loomed. Egypt had one more tactic and that was more whine than winning. "But if we all agreeÖ"
"We know youíre an adult, but youíre still our child. We like to feel useful. Growing old isnít very pleasant, dear." Her motherís sigh undoubtedly bowed telephone lines all across Arizona. "Nowadays, we old folks just get stuck in a retirement village somewhere while you young ones get on with your busy lives. Forgotten. Ignored."
Guilt. The weapon specifically designed to find the chinks in a childís armor. Egypt mentally surrendered. One day, she might actually find her backbone. "You are not old, Mother. And no one is talking about sticking you or Dad in a retirement home. Youíre not even retired." She spit her gum into the trash and knotted the grocery sack.
"Will you let your father do this for you? You know Doc Matheson has forbidden him from undertaking any construction projects until his wrist heals."
Her dad and construction projects. It was a standing joke in the community that the walls of the Starr house moved more quickly than an ancient Egyptian booby trap. "Dad can look at my car, Mom."
"Oh, my goodness. Is that the time? You should have left fifteen minutes ago. Do try to hurry, dear. Paris wonít listen to a word of reason until she has that dress in her hands."
Fifteen minutes. The revised schedule that had been faxed twenty-two minutes after she called to let them know she would have to work an extra day. Egypt shuffled toward the phone recharger. "Bye, Mom. Iíll see you at lunch."
"At Granettiís. You do remember where it is, donít you, dear?"
"Yes, Mom. And even if Iíd forgotten in the six years Iíve been living in Phoenix, Iíd be able to find it from one of the seven maps you faxed me."
"Leave the attitude in Phoenix, dear. Itís not really becoming in a woman your age."
"Bye, Mom." Egypt hung up the phone as the first giggles tickled her tongue. After three decades on this Earth, she had yet to reach the age where her attitude was becoming. Maybe she was only six hours away from reaching that point.
Then again, maybe not.
"Well, this should be an interesting trip." The cat sauntered beside her as she dragged the squeaking suitcase into the parking lot. She opened the Volkswagen door and the cat leapt inside. "Make yourself at home. Itís going to be a long drive."
Nutz blinked his yellow eyes, batted at the silver bell adorning one of her gifts for the happy couple then curled up on the backseat. His tail twitched as she wedged the hamster cage between the passengerís seat and the dashboard.
Egypt merged onto the freeway just as her brain registered the missing wedding dress. She smacked on the blinker and veered towards the closest exit. Backtracking to her apartment would cost her fifteen minutes tops; forgetting her sisterís wedding dress could prove fatal. "Please, God, let this is the last thing that goes wrong."