Cassandra stepped out of the steamy bathroom into the hall wearing a thick terrycloth robe wrapping around her head turban style a thick towel. She wasn't looking where she was going so she promptly collided with a solid wall. The solid wall turned out to be her brother and he was the one who caught her when she stumbled backward.
“Whoa!” Frankie said laughing as he grabbed her with his good arm.
“You trying to kill me, Frankie?” she squeaked, staring at the deadly looking hook which could have easily taken out her eye.
“If I actually tried to kill you, Cassandra, you would be very dead already,” he said.
She grimaced, wishing he wouldn't be so blasé about all the killing he'd done overseas. It was all justifiable, of course, and better them in a grave than her brother, but still...it made her insides squirm to think about how many people he might have killed. Then again, it scared her silly thinking how close she came to being an only child.
“What are you doing up so early, Frankie? After last night I thought you'd be in bed til noon,” she said, letting her damp curls free from its makeshift turban. “I thought I was the only one up.”
“Nope. I'm supposed to take you over to Sophie's this morning, aren't I?” he said.
Her face fell. “Can't I just take the car? Papa's not gonna use it obviously.”
He gave her a whaddaya kidding me? kind of look.
“Oh, Frankie! You know you can trust me with it.”
“Cassandra, it's not a matter of trust. There's tons of snow and black ice out there and you are not used to that sorta stuff. Better if I just...”
“Frankie,” she whined. “Please? I'll be really really careful! I'm only going to Sophie's to pick her up and then to Ronnie's house where we'll spend the day. We're not going all over town or anything.”
He stared at her, his little sister who presently looked almost as young as when he left all those years ago. “Pops won't be happy, you know. He won't like it at all that you're not gonna be around today. Uncle Guido and Aunt Rosa will be here later, you know...with Joey, no doubt.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes. “All the more reason to be gone,” she muttered.
“Never heard you talking like that! What do you have against them?” he said, stunned.
“I love Uncle Guido, I do! And if it was just him coming I would stay home and listen all over again to the three bad jokes he knows, but I can't stand being bossed around by Aunt Rosa and when you add to that being molested by Joey...”
“What???” Frankie shouted. “Has that little twerp touched you?”
She sighed and shook her head. “Not yet, but only because I don't give him the chance! Oh, Frankie, you only remember him as Aunt Rosa's kid brother, but he's...God help me but I hate the sight of him! He thinks he's God's gift to women and he expects me to be thrilled to be his dutiful little slave while he's here,” she said, before making her voice go an octave deeper. “Casandra, get me a drink. Cassandra, I need more ice. Cassandra, cook me a fatted calf and feed it to me so my hands don't get greasy. Cassandra, kiss my ass and be happy I let you do it.”
Frankie burst out laughing. “Now I know you're exaggerating!”
“Am not! You haven't been around for over six years, Frankie. You don't know what it's like and I'm thoroughly sick of it!”
He stopped laughing and frowned. “You can't stay away all the time they're here. You know that, right? Pop will have none of that. It's family time at Christmas.”
“No, I know,” she said, drying the ends of her hair with the towel as frustrated tears filled her eyes. “But just one more day to myself, please, Frankie. Then I'll be here with the family and pretend I'm thrilled that they have my life all planned out for me so I don't have to strain my poor, feeble little brain on such tedious matters.”
“It can't be that bad, Cassandra,” he said.
“Wait...just wait to see it for yourself. They treat me like... like less than a slug. I can't have the holidays end soon enough.”
He stared at her frowning. “You've changed so much since I've been gone.”
“I was barely thirteen when you left us, Frankie. You actually thought I would stay the same?” she said.
“I was hoping,” Frankie said, running a calloused finger down her cheek. “But you're all grown up now.”
“You're the only one who's noticed,” she bitterly replied.
“I'm sure that's not true, Cassandra,” he said. “Okay, you can use my Jeep today, but...”
She gasped. “Seriously?”
“I'll feel better. Pop's car sucks in the snow,” he said, wagging a threatening finger in her face. “But do NOT go over any speed limits, NONE! Hear me? I almost skidded out myself last night, remember?”
She giggled. “That's cuz you still think you're in Afghanistan being chased by....” She frowned suddenly. “Frankie, you don't have...like...nightmares and stuff, do you?”
Frankie stared at her worried expression for a full minute. He remembered all the letters and notes she had sent him, everyone of them asking if he was okay. “You're worried about PTSD, right?” he said, slowly grinning. “Nah, don't be, Sweetie. It's like what my commanding officer used to say about me... head too thick for anything short of a RPG to get through it.”
“Really?” she said, skeptically.
“I'm fine, Honey. Anyway, I got no time to wallow in that stuff. I got you and Pops to think about, okay? Now go on and get dressed. I want you gone before Pop gets back from church.”
“Wait...he's not even home? He took the car...in his condition?”
Frankie shook his head. “Mrs. McGuire picked him up. Think she's got a crush on him or something.”
“No way! She just feels sorry for him,” Cassandra said, nervously biting down on her lip.
“Are you gonna tell him...what are ya gonna tell him?”
“That I sent you on an important errand for me. Doing my Christmas shopping for me cuz, you know,” he said lifting his prosthetic arm. “He's been very understanding since I got back home, let's me have my way...can't imagine why.”
Cassandra hugged him tightly and he truly did feel like a wall, solid, strong and unmovable. “I'm so glad you're back home, Frankie, and safe. Thank you.”
“Don't thank me. Thank obnoxious Aunt Rosa...the family matchmaker. Pretty sure she'll be leaving you alone this time around. She'll be too busy tossing all her sisters and cousins at me expecting me to marry one of them before the end of the year. God help me!”
Cassandra kissed his cheek. “Now you know how I feel!” she said and ran into her room giggling.
“About time you got here!” Sophie said, hopping up into the Jeep. “Sweet ride, Cassie!”
“It's Frankie's. He's letting me use it because of the bad weather,” Cassandra said.
“Let's hope it snows everyday of the year then!” Sophie said, laughing. “But you still shoulda gotten here sooner than this.”
“I only texted you an hour ago, so I didn't think you'd be ready so soon. You always keep me waiting, you know,” Casandra said.
“Not this time,” Sophie said, a determined gleam in her eyes.
“Oh, yeah....Ronnie,” Cassandra said, with a sigh as she pulled out of the driveway and headed down the street. Should she tell her volatile friend about all those girls all over Ronnie last night and he not even remotely trying to stop it? She decided not...for now, for the sake of their tenuous friendship.“Um...anyway. Frankie told me to ask you if...”
“No, sorry, Cassie, I still won't marry him,” Sophie said, grinning impishly.
Cassandra laughed. “No, not that, although...he might pay you to pretend you're his girlfriend just to keep our Aunt Rosa from setting him up with every Italian girl within one hundred miles of Catalpa Valley...or even the Tri-State area!”
“Oh, my God, first you and now him? Isn't anybody safe from this? What is up with your family and getting everybody married off?”
“Don't ask me. It's an Italian thing, I guess. Anyway, he was wondering if you'd like to sing at Danfords a couple of nights a week while you're home...if you can get your band or one of the bands that played last time to perform with you. Don't think he can pay much but...you know...it's exposure for you and you can have a tip jar and stuff. Whaddaya think?”
“Cassie, you know I'll sing for free. Just point me to the mic. Of course I'll do it!” Sophie said. “I'll just have to call... uh...somebody... whoever might be interested. I'll ask Ronnie what he thinks, who to ask. Or maybe he'd be my backup. We did okay together, right? We could do it again. That would be so cool!”
“Um...Frankie really likes Ronnie,” Cassandra said, carefully treading on dangerous ground. “He gave him a...”
“Why shouldn't he like him? He's great.”
“Oh, shoot! I forgot...I made cookies for your dad last night while I was waiting for you to call me. I wanted to give them to him today...but I guess we won't be going to your house anyway, are we?”
“No...not unless you want to be stuck there for hours listening to my uncle tell stupid jokes and my aunt telling you to eat more cuz you're too skinny.”
“Everybody thinks I'm too skinny. Why should your family be any different?” Sophie said dismissively.
“Yeah, but they'll take it as a personal insult if you leave my house without gaining twenty pounds,” Cassandra said.
Sophie laughed. “Maybe I better not go then! Did your father yell at you all night? That why you didn't call me? He really should realize by now that you're not ten years old anymore.”
“Not likely,” Cassandra said, stopping at an intersection. “Um...where are we going? I don't really know where Ronnie lives, do you?”
“Left onto Running Quail Road, then right at Cedarwood Drive. Ronnie's is the last house on the left, right up against the state park land.”
“Figures you'd know,” Cassandra muttered and again she wondered how a stalker--Sophie-- couldn't tell another stalker--Antoine-- had been stalking her for years! “So, last night I couldn't call cuz...”
“Cassie...do you believe in ghosts?” Sophie interrupted.
“Uh...like spirits roaming the earth unable to go to heaven?”
Sophie frowned. Was that the reason her dad was still hanging around? He was earthbound? “Uh...Something like that.”
“Well...never really gave it much thought...uh...maybe...I guess. Why?” Cassandra said.
“Oh...just asking,” Sophie said, chewing on her bottom lip. “It's just...I had a weird dream last night. My dad was a ghost and he floated through the wall of my room and he kinda woke me up and we could talk and stuff and it felt so real. You know?”
“Okay...um...but you just called it a dream, so a dream is just a dream, isn't it?” Cassandra said. “Even a very lucid dream is still only a dream.”
“Yeah...I guess,” Sophie said suddenly pointing to the large field stone house surrounded by clumping river birch and Catalpa trees. “That's it!”
“Sophie, I didn't tell you about last night,” Cassandra said, turning the ignition off and unbuckling her seat belt.
“Tell me later, okay?” Sophie said, already out of the car and heading to the front door.
Cassandra sighed. “She's gonna be pissed that I didn't tell her. I just know it.”
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