Always the Last to Know

Chapter 54

Mom was waiting at the storm door when Lester pulled the SUV to the curb. I was surprised, though given what Dad told me about Mom’s sleepwalking I probably shouldn’t have. She’d always had the most sensitive maternal instincts. When I was little she could sense when I was getting upset and head it off before it turned into a full blown tantrum. I don’t know what happened to change things between us so drastically, but at some point she’d decided I was too wild and I’d decided she was too strict. We’d butted heads and that was the end of that. She was the enemy. Until six years ago when she became my biggest ally.

I still don’t know what possessed her to help me run away from my problems, but I was grateful for the show of faith. Perhaps she was just relieved that I’d come to her with an issue in my life for the first time since I was four and didn’t want to ruin the show of confidence by putting me down like she usually did.

“Do you need me to come in with you?” Lester asked, leaning around me to see the front of the house.

“I think I’ll be okay,” I said, turning to face him briefly. “I’ll call you when I’m done. Unless I get Dad to drop me back at my apartment.”

He nodded briefly. “Just let me know what you’re doing, it’s fine. I’ve got nothing on today.”

I smiled my thanks and thrust the door open, hopping out of the car and hurrying up the path to the front porch. By the time I’d reached the bottom of the steps Mom was standing at the top of them, staring down at me with watery eyes and fidgety hands. She looked older than I remembered her, which should be expected, I suppose, but she’d looked the same for so long that I just assumed she’d never age.

“Stephanie,” she breathed.

“Hi, Mom,” I replied weakly.

In the next moment she was down the three steps that had divided us wrapping her arms around me in a tight hug. The action was shocking. My family didn’t hug. We showed our emotions through food and grunts. Hugging was strictly off the table except in extreme circumstances. I guess this made the cut. The embrace lasted a good long moment before she shifted her grip to my upper arms and took a step back, scanning me from head to toe with the scrutinising eye that made daughters everywhere uncomfortable. It used to be that I would get this eye while she was carrying dishes to the table. I could ignore it then; pretend I didn’t notice as I navigated the complex intricacies of my family.

There was no ignoring this, though. It was like she was relearning me, taking in every detail and committing it to memory. After the longest pause in history of the Plum family, she lifted a hand to the ends of my hair, springing out from behind the headband I’d used to tame it. “What did you do to your hair?” she asked with what might have been sadness twinkling in her eyes.

“I cut it off, Mom,” I explained. “It’s hot down in Mexico.”

“It looks nice,” she assured me. Another, quicker hug later and she was dragging me up the stairs toward the house. “Frank! Your daughter is here! Come and greet her!” She turned to me in the hallway as I crossed the threshold. “He told me I was crazy as Mother when I got up this morning and sent him to get the ingredients for Pineapple Upside Down cake because you were coming home. But I knew. I had the feeling.”

“You made me cake?” I asked. I had a feeling it was an attempt to get me to stick around. She would always bribe me with food to get me to come to dinner. Insisting that she’d be making one of my favourite dishes. It’s good to know nothing has changed.

“Of course I did, Stephanie,” Mom said, her brows furrowing. “I love you.”

Tears sprang into my eyes at her admission. The words were special. She didn’t use them often, so when she did, like now, you had no other choice than to feel blessed. I cried. I sobbed. I was an ugly, snotting mess, but Mom held me and I knew I was home. Between the three words I’d longed to hear for so long during my adult life, and the cake she’d often used as a substitute for the words, I was broken.

Despite the fact that I’d mostly reconciled with my mother before asking for her help to get out of the situation I’d created for myself, I hadn’t thought of the toll it would take on her. We’d just gotten to a point where I could come to her with my problems and she could help me through it without judging me and admonishing me with crude comparisons to girls I’d gone to school with, and I’d asked her to help me hide from my life without so much as a promise to keep in touch. She hadn’t asked for it, I hadn’t offered it. I’d simply pleaded my case and she’d agreed, relieved that I’d chosen to come to her instead of Ranger, because surely she knew that if I’d ever asked Ranger to hide me she wouldn’t have been given so much as an opportunity to say goodbye, or the small peace of mind of knowing that I was, in fact, still alive. If Ranger had helped me disappear I’d be legally dead and living under an assumed identity.

But, of course, she didn’t know that Ranger was half the reason I’d felt such a strong urge to be gone. She hadn’t asked questions. Simply agreed that I needed to take a step back and get my life in order and suggested that the whole operation would be a lot more effective with Dad’s help.

Speaking of Dad, he stepped into the hallway just as I was sniffing back the last of my tears, and Mom was allowing me to pull away from her embrace.

“Good to see you, Pumpkin,” he said, the smile on his face warming my heart more than I ever thought it could. I was home. Everything would be alright. Later, I would find Ranger and make him stay put while I finished explaining everything. I had no delusions that it could mend everything that was wrong with our relationship, but I owed him the full set of details, and he owed me the time to listen, since he hadn’t allowed me the time to decide to come back on my own.

“It’s good to see you, too,” I replied, wiping the remnants of tears away with the back of my hand. “I missed you both so much.”

“We missed you more,” Mom said, taking my hand and guiding me to the kitchen where a heaven beam of light illuminated the glorious cake she’d baked just for me. “Come sit,” she added. “I’ll get you a glass of milk.”

I did as I was told, sinking into the same seat I’d always taken for as long as I could remember. There were only five seats at the small kitchen table, just as there had been my entire life, and each one had an assigned owner when. Mine was the one closest to the wall, since I was the youngest and, for a long time, the smallest. On my right was Dad’s seat and on my left, Grandma Mazur’s. I was sandwiched between my two biggest supporters because a) it made me happy and b) they acted as a buffer between me and my sister and mother.

I stared at the seat on my left for a long moment as Dad took up his usual place, and realised there was something missing. “Where’s Grandma?” I asked, thinking she would usually have been at the door alongside Mom, waiting for me to arrive. Maybe she’s at the salon, I thought to myself, reaching for the cake in the centre of the table, I should go surprise her after I’m finished here. But the silence that met my question, together with the odd stillness that had fallen over my parents gave me pause. It wasn’t often my mother would l be so inactive in the kitchen. Her hands were always moving, always preparing something. Now, though, they were hovering at her sides as she stared at my dad.

Some kind of silent communication must have gone on between them, because in the next moment, Dad’s chair was an inch closer and his large hand was covering mine where it had fallen to the table. His eyes were sad when I glanced up at them, and I knew. I knew without him having to say a word that she was gone.

“No,” I whispered, shaking my head. Grandma was immortal. She’d been alive for forever. She couldn’t be… It wasn’t possible. She’d endured for so long that the idea just seemed unlikely.

“I’m sorry, Pumpkin,” Dad said, wrapping his other arm around my shoulders as my face, so full of hope just moments ago, crumpled with grief. “We would have let you know sooner if we’d had any way of contacting you.”

I know he didn’t mean to add guilt to my grief, but with his statement hanging in the air it began to eat at my stomach. My vision blurred once more as the weight of my decisions came crashing down on me once more. “H-how… how long?” I asked, my voice as shaky as my hands.

“Two years,” he said softly rubbing up and down my upper arm in a comforting gesture. “A cold turned into a lung infection. She just couldn’t shake it.”

“I should have been here,” I said, suddenly angry at myself. I’d allowed my own selfishness to take me away from everyone I’d ever known and loved. I’d abandoned my entire life because I’d let my insecurities and secrets have all the power. And now I’d come back to learn that my biggest supporter throughout my entire life was gone. I’d never be able to hug her, or share my joy with her again. She’d never again come to the door of my parents’ house to greet me wearing bike shorts and a crop top claiming that she still had an alright enough body to pull it off. She’d never again cup my face as she told me that I could be anything if I just set my mind to it. Never. Ever. Again.

Mom was on my other side, pulling Grandma’s chair closer so that she could wrap her arms around me as well. “It’s okay,” she assured me. “Grandma knows you love her. You would have been there if you could.”

But I could have. If I’d found out about that night with Morelli as soon as it happened. I’d have known without a shadow of a doubt that the baby was Rangers. I’d have been able to share my grief with him. I’d have recovered with the support of my boyfriend and maybe even my family. I wouldn’t have felt the need to leave. I would have still been in Trenton when she got sick. I could have been there for her like she’d been there for me my entire life.

“Have some cake,” Mom suggested, dragging the cake closer and taking up the knife that lay on the table beside the small stake of cake plates. I tried to protest, but she interrupted with a firm. “Grandma wouldn’t have wanted you to wallow in her death. She’d have wanted you to eat cake and celebrate her life.”

And what could I say to that? It really was the kind of thing Grandma would have wanted. I couldn’t just refuse the cake because I was sad. I owed it to Grandma to sniff back the snot and eat the cake. And tell my parents the entire story of why I left and why I came back. They’d been so involved in the leaving that they deserved to know the truth, even if it was a bit late.

After a few moments of silence, while I pinched cake and popped it into my mouth, slowly allowing the situation to sink into my brain, I began my explanation, hoping their reactions were not as severe as Ranger’s had been just yesterday.

Thankfully, Mom and Dad were very patient, allowing me pause and stumble over my words, and making hushed condolences for my loss that wrenched my heart almost as much as the realisation that I would never again share a moment with my grandmother. I’d just begun to explain Ranger’s deceit, leading up to his reaction to hearing of my miscarriage when the phone in the hall rang. I paused, looking to Mom, giving her permission to go an answer it, but she shook her head.

“You’re more important than the phone,” she said quietly.

So I continued. But a minute later, the phone was ringing again.

“You should get it,” I told her. “It won’t stop until you do.”

She nodded and made her way to the hall. I couldn’t hear her side of the conversation from where I sat, but the tone of her voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Pushing back from the table, I made it to the hall just as Mom was replacing the receiver. She turned to face me with wide eyes and I knew – just knew – that the call was about me.

“What?” I asked. “What is it?”

“It’s, uh, Ranger,” she said, her brow furrowing. “And Joseph.”

“What?” I asked again, this time with more confusion than curiosity.

“Apparently Ranger went to Joseph’s house to beat him up,” Mom explained, sounding dazed. “I-I thought I’d heard the last of these phone calls when I said goodbye to you six years ago.”

“Sorry, Mom,” I said. And I meant it. I didn’t mean to be such a burden on her. It just happened.

“It’s not your fault,” she assured me. “Some people just can’t mind their own business.” I was just thinking that I should go find out what had happened, though I wasn’t sure who I would be asking for details, when she said firmly, “You should go make sure Ranger is alright.”

I blinked, my brows drawing together. “Ranger?” I asked. “What about Joe?”

Mom shook her head. “From what I understand, the beating has been well earned. Ranger, on the other hand, is not known for being so openly violent.”

She had a point. Ranger preferred to put fear into men in private, rather than lay fists into them in full view of nosey neighbours. But I didn’t understand the concern Mom was showing him over Joe. She’d always been a strong supporter of my eventually coming to my senses and marrying the cop. She’d come to tolerate my relationship with Ranger in those last few months before I left, simply because she was relieved that I was finally showing an interest in family life. But I’d thought she still had her heart set on me one day becoming Mrs. Joseph Morelli.

“Joseph should never had put doubt in your mind by sending that text,” Mom pointed out. “Your story has made me realise that he is not the man he made me believe he was.”

“But Ranger -.”

She shook her head. “I know what Ranger did hurt, but he did it because he loves you and wanted to make sure you were alright. Now it’s your turn to return the favour.”

“But -.”

“You need to talk to him anyway,” Dad said from behind him. “He need to know the rest of the story. He needs to know how you feel about what he did. We’re not telling you to get back together with him. We’re suggesting that you make sure he isn’t on a war path around Trenton.”

“Can’t one of his men do that?” I asked, even as I recognised that my parents were right. “They probably have a better idea of how to deal with him if he is.”

“Stephanie Michelle Plum,” Mom said. “You need to go and clear the air between you and that man.”

I just nodded and assured her I’d be back for dinner – with the whole family – later, before grabbing my bag and making my way out of the house. I stood on the porch for a second, staring at the empty curb and remembering I’d been dropped here. Just as I pulled out my phone to call Lester, though, his SUV came roaring around the corner and screeched to a halt in the exact same spot as he’d parked so carefully earlier.

“Get in,” he called through the open window. “We gotta go tell Ranger he’s an idiot.”

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