“N, fifty-eight,” Lotta Lays shouted, licking her brightly painted lips. “We’re looking for an N, fifty-eight!”
London and her friends groaned and moved the tabs on their wooden bingo boards so they were blank again. They only had one more chance to win tonight.
“I thought someone was gonna tell Lotta it’s my birthday so she’d make sure I’d win,” said Reggie, tucking her mini-braids behind her ears. Her eyes, the same color as the whiskey she sipped, focused on her now blank bingo board.
Thomas shrugged. “We did tell her, but she has to use that bingo app on her phone so there’s no way to cheat the system.”
London kissed her girlfriend on the cheek. “It’s okay, Reggie. I’ll make sure you win big when we get home.” Regina Williams ran her fingers through London’s mane of blue hair—hair London achieved with a color called Royal Sky—and kissed her, the sad bingo board forgotten.
“And I’m sure what you win in the bedroom will be better than the DVD box set of Facts of Life, season two.” Grant took a swig of beer. “Where the hell is Tate with our drinks? He went up for the next round ten minutes ago.”
London tried to see the bar, but even from her high stool, she couldn’t get a glimpse. Cavan, their favorite hangout, was packed this evening. Every dark corner—and with the oak-paneled walls, there were a lot of dark corners—was crowded with enthusiastic patrons. Normally, she knew at least half the customers by face if not by name, and she liked to think of it as Columbus’s gay version of Cheers, but Lotta Lays had been bringing in drag queens from other clubs to perform between bingo sets, and it turned their low-key weekly tradition into more of a production than usual.
“I don’t see Tate,” said Thomas, “but here comes Lotta.”
The glittering drag queen was making her way to their spot at the back of the bar, microphone in hand, chatting with the clientele at each table as she went. “Are you two leaving together tonight?” Lotta asked two men who looked so young, this might have been one of their first experiences inside a bar. The fairer of the two blushed and looked at his companion, who grinned but did not speak. “That’s a yes!” Lotta guffawed.
She moved on to a group of boisterous women who’d been heckling her all night. “How are you broads?”
“I love your dress,” slurred one.
“Thank you, honey,” said Lotta. “You won’t find this at the Big & Tall Men’s Shop.” She straightened her blond Marilyn Monroe wig and batted her false eyelashes.
Tate arrived with a fresh round of drinks just before Lotta got to their table. His normally pale skin was a deep strawberry red from the heat of the crowded bar, and a few tendrils of his dark blond hair had tightened into corkscrew curls.
“It’s a madhouse in here tonight,” he said.
“No kidding,” said Reggie. “You were gone so long, I was afraid one of Lotta’s queens ate you alive.”
“Would I let that happen?” demanded Lotta, arriving at Reggie’s side. “No,” she said, almost to herself. “If anyone’s gonna eat this fine specimen, it’s gonna be me!” She pinched Tate’s cheek, and he laughed. “This man just brings out the beast in me!” Lotta put her mouth closer to the microphone and purred, and the customers of Cavan hooted and clapped.
“Seriously, folks,” Lotta said when the cheers died down, “I want everyone to give a hand to the people at this table. They are so regular here at Cavan, you’d think we put liquid fiber in their drinks.” While the patrons clapped, Tate whispered something in Lotta’s ear. “Oh, say that again out loud, sugar.” She pushed the microphone up to his mouth.
“Uh, it’s our friend Reggie’s birthday today,” Tate said.
“That’s right,” Lotta said. “That’s right. I haven’t forgotten you, Reggie. We’ll be getting you up on stage after the next bingo set for your shot of birthday Fireball.”
Reggie laughed and nodded, and Lotta walked back to the front of the club to introduce Honey Pot, the next drag queen, performing “Hit Me Baby, One More Time.”
“Anybody wanna go smoke?” asked Tate.
London gave him a playful pop to the belly. “Nobody smokes but you.”
“Yeah, but you could come out and breathe fresh air before the next bingo game,” he said. “It’s hot in here. Please?”
Five minutes later, they were all on the patio. Surprisingly, given the size of the crowd inside, it was deserted. Two of the drag queens who’d performed earlier sat at a corner table, and one of them had her size twelve stilettoed feet up on the table.
“I can’t believe you wanted to come to Cavan for your birthday, Reg,” said Grant. “No city besides San Fran has more gay clubs than the ’Bus, and you decided to come to our usual place.”
Reggie shrugged. “I like it here.”
London smiled. If it had been her birthday, it would have been an extravaganza of club after club, with dancing and drag shows, pageantry and debauchery. Her girlfriend wanted to play bingo with her friends, drink some beers, visit with their favorite drag queen in town, and call it a night. She loved her for it.
“Do you guys want to do brunch tomorrow?” asked Thomas. He sipped his Scotch on the rocks and wrapped his light jacket around his slight frame. “Tip Top’s mimosas are calling me.”
Grant chuckled and looped his arms around Thomas’s waist. “I love my little lush.” Grant was always described as a teddy bear, which he hated. “Might as well just slap a sticker on my forehead that says, ‘hairy and chubby,’” he’d mutter whenever someone made the comparison.
Thomas arched an eyebrow. “You’re one to talk.”
“Oh, I know,” said Grant, who slipped the Scotch from Thomas’s fingers, took a long swig, and kissed his boyfriend.
“Awkwardly single, party of one,” Tate muttered.
“Please.” London rolled her eyes. “Nobody feels bad for you. You get hit on twenty times a day.”
“Yeah, mostly by men,” said Tate. “Not that I’m not flattered, of course. If I liked dick, I’d be all set. Alas, I’ve always preferred donuts to bananas.”
“That’s a real shame,” Grant said. “Bananas are much healthier for you.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Reggie.
“Anyway,” Thomas said, “brunch?”
“I’m not sure,” said London. “I may have to stop in at the store in the morning.”
Reggie frowned. “What? You didn’t tell me that.”
“I’m sorry. With the holidays coming up, I really need to organize the inventory.”
“The holidays? It’s September,” said Reggie. “And isn’t this why you hired Jasmine as a co-manager? So you wouldn’t have to be in the store on Sundays? And after all these years, doesn’t Jasmine basically run the store?”
“I just want to make sure we’re prepared.” London stared at Reggie’s perplexed face. “Baby, what’s the big deal? It would just be for a few hours.”
“I…I had plans for us tomorrow.”
Before London could express her surprise, a deep voice called from the doorway into Cavan. “Hey, guys, before the next queen starts her set, I’m gonna bring Reggie up on stage for her birthday shot.” Marcus, aka Lotta Lays, fastened a clip-on to her ear. She picked up the microphone from the table at the entrance, and in her Lotta voice, said, “Before we hear from Ms. Sugar Pants, we’re going to bring our birthday girl up here!”
The group shuffled inside to stand beneath the stage as Lotta climbed the stairs with her tumbler of amber-colored liquid and raised her glass. The stage at Cavan wasn’t even as big as a parking space, but the performers made the best of it.
“You know, I have a tradition here at Cavan to bring the birthday boys and girls forward to do a shot of Fireball with me. I’d like to ask Regina Williams to come up on stage.” As Reggie made her way up the few steep steps, Lotta continued. “Reggie is a good friend to us here at Cavan, and if you’re a part of the queer community in Columbus, Ohio, chances are she’s a good friend to you too. A director and spokesperson for Stonewall Columbus, Reggie works hard every day to advocate for equality and freedom for all of us. It’s a pleasure to have her on this stage tonight.”
Lotta reached down to the server’s outstretched hand, took the shot glass filled to the brim with Fireball, and carefully handed it to Reggie.
“Happy birthday!” She tapped their glasses together. The crowd echoed the sentiment as Reggie and Lotta did their shots.
“Now,” Lotta said, handing their empty glasses back to her husband, “we are going to do something a little different. Reggie has asked to say a few words, and since it’s her birthday, and she’s so special to us, I’ve agreed to give up my precious microphone for a few minutes.”
Confused, London looked at her friends, her brow furrowed.
“I take it you didn’t know anything about this?” asked Tate.
“Not at all.”
Reggie took the microphone and cleared her throat, twisting her braids through the fingers of her free hand.
“Hi, everyone,” she said and cleared her throat once more. “As Lotta said, tonight is my birthday, and on your birthday, you get to make a wish. Wishes aren’t usually my thing. My girlfriend is the one who makes the wishes.” Reggie paused to look at London and smile. “She’s an expert. She wishes on stars, she wishes on candles, on pennies she throws into a fountain; she even wishes when she notices the clock says 11:11. And she won’t ever tell me what she’s wishing for, either, because, of course, that means the wish won’t come true.
“This year, months before my birthday, I started wondering what I would wish for when this night rolled around. When I stood up here and did my birthday shot with Lotta, what would be my wish? For inspiration, I pictured London every time she makes a wish. She closes her eyes, crosses both hands over her heart, and breathes really deep. When she opens her eyes, she nods her head and says, ‘It’s done.’
“The funny thing is, even though I never know what the hell she’s wishing for, I always believe in it. I believe it’s going to come true.” Reggie closed her eyes, put her hands on her heart, and took a deep breath. When she opened them, she looked directly at London and got down on one knee.
“London,” Reggie said, her voice wavering but strong, “somehow, you make me believe in wishes so much that I even want to make one for myself. The only possible wish I could make, the only one that would truly matter, is for you to be my wife. So tonight, I’m making my first wish since I was seven years old. And I’m asking you now: London Craft, will you marry me?”
London could see people cheering and clapping, but all she could hear was a deafening ring in her ears. She stood, paralyzed by the weight of this unexpected question, staring at Reggie: her expectant and hopeful face—that face with the enormous brown eyes and wide lips that she loved—turned first confused, then hurt, and then angry. A bitter taste filled London’s mouth, as if the guilt and anxiety coursing through her had bubbled up and landed on her tongue. She didn’t know how much time passed before Reggie got up, scrambled off stage, and out toward the patio. When London ran after her, she noticed her cell phone was ringing but ignored it.
How had this happened? The only times they’d spoken about marriage were early in their relationship, when London explained it wasn’t something she wanted. As much as she was devastated for Reggie, there was an undercurrent of resentment that Reggie had made such a public proposal without checking in to see if her feelings on the matter had changed.
“Reggie!” London yelled. She saw her striding to the side gate toward the parking lot. “Reggie, wait!”
Reggie whirled around “What for? So you can further humiliate me?”
“Please, I’m sorry,” London said. “It was a shock, I just…I just wasn’t expecting this.”
Reggie gaped. “You weren’t? Almost six years together, and you’ve never even considered marriage?”
London swallowed hard, and the bitterness burned her throat. “No,” she said, almost in a whisper.
“That’s great, London. That’s just great. All this time, I’m thinking we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together, and you haven’t even thought about it.”
“Wait a minute. I do want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to be with you forever. But you know how I feel about marriage, Reg. It’s an archaic institution created by the patriarchy, to—”
“Please, don’t talk about the fucking patriarchy right now,” said Reggie. “You just rejected me in front of a bunch of people.”
The resentment that had been an undercurrent flashed to the surface. London’s phone began ringing again, and when she declined the call, she saw it was an unknown number. “I didn’t reject you. This doesn’t have to change anything.”
“Doesn’t have to…” Tears streaked Reggie’s face. “This changes everything.”
“Why?” London grabbed for Reggie’s hands, and Reggie jerked away, backing up. “Baby, I love you, and I want to spend forever with you. We don’t need to get married.”
“I do. I need it.”
“You know,” Reggie said, choking on tears, “I remember when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, and we got national marriage equality. You and I danced in the streets all night together. I thought we were building to this moment.”
“But…I thought you knew how I felt about marriage. When we talked about being together always, I didn’t know you meant getting married. How could I have expected this? We haven’t talked about it in five years.”
Reggie used her balled-up fist to wipe tears from her face. “I guess that’s my mistake, then.” She turned and opened the gate.
London grabbed her shoulder. “Please don’t go,” London said. Her voice was thick with the tears that couldn’t fall, tears that felt lodged in her throat.
Reggie took her hand and squeezed before pushing it away. “I have to.”
London watched her walk away, and all the emotions from the argument—confusion, shame, anger, resentment—collected in her chest. “Happy birthday.”
“Maybe I should have said yes when she was on stage and no when we were alone.” London stared into her vodka and soda. “At least then there wouldn’t be the public embarrassment factor.”
“Sweetie, you were in shock,” Grant said. “Hell, we all were.”
London had collapsed into a chair on the patio after Reggie left, and the guys swiftly pulled a table over and joined her. Her phone rang, and she lifted it to see if it was Reggie calling, but again, it was an unknown number. She let the phone drop on the table with a clatter.
“What I don’t understand is why Reggie thought you’d even want to get married,” Tate said through a puff of smoke. “You’ve never wanted traditional anything, let alone something as huge as that.”
“You don’t ever want to get married?” asked Thomas.
“Not really,” said London.
“It’s just not my gig. I love Reggie, and I’m committed to her, but that doesn’t mean I want the government involved in our relationship. And I’m not particularly religious, so I don’t need the holy matrimony aspect.”
“Ah,” Thomas said, “so you’re a cynic.”
“Not at all. I believe in love, but I’m ambivalent about marriage. It’s too big a thing to do unless you feel strongly about it.”
“That’s true,” said Thomas. He leaned his head against Grant’s shoulder.
London’s phone rang again, and she glanced at it and sighed.
“You gonna get that?” asked Grant.
“No. It’s an unknown number. Probably somebody selling something.”
“At midnight?” Tate asked. He grabbed London’s phone. “Hello? Yes, she is; who’s this?” He frowned and handed the phone to London. “It’s your sister.”
“What? There’s no way it’s my twin. She doesn’t even have my phone number.”
Tate put the phone in London’s hand. “I think it’s really her.”
London hesitated, then put the phone to her ear. “Diana?”
“London, is that you?” She sounded hoarse.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“London.” Diana gulped. “It’s Mom. She died today.”
London woke the next morning to the smell of coffee and felt the bed shift under the weight of someone sitting down. She thought of Reggie, but when she opened her eyes, it was Tate on the edge of the bed. The mug he held had steam rising from it, and he offered it with a gentle smile. She sat up and peered around the room in a dull daze that she mistook for a hangover. Something was off, but in the moments before she fully shook sleep away, she didn’t know what. When her eyes rested on the open door of the closet, she noticed it looked emptier than usual, and the previous night flooded back.
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the closet. It mirrored the slightly empty, mixed up way she was feeling. Her mother was dead, and Reggie was gone, and she couldn’t shake the sense that she was displaced in her own home.
Warmth filled her hands; Tate was holding the steaming mug to them.
London took a sip. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Wanna go over to Hell with me? I just need a quick shower first.”
Tate’s eyebrows furrowed, and he rested a hand on London’s back. “Do you really think you need to go to the shop today?”
“Yes,” London said. “Before I leave for Keys Crossing, I have to make sure things are settled here. I’m not sure how long…you know, how long things will take.”
She knew next to nothing about the circumstances of her mother’s death. Aside from details surrounding the day and time of the service, Diana hadn’t given her a lot of information. They’d both been distraught. It hadn’t occurred to London until after they hung up that she didn’t even know how Grace Craft had died, and in the too bright light of the morning, that realization made her lungs feel thick, and she concentrated solely on her breathing for several seconds.
In the moments she’d allowed her thoughts to linger on her estranged family throughout the last few decades, she always fantasized about a phone call from her mother saying she’d been wrong, that she didn’t care about London’s sexuality; all she wanted was to have her daughter back. The daydreams ended with tearful reconciliations and promises to make up for lost time. As much as London knew it would never happen, she’d loved the fantasy. Now it was gone.
What was almost as painful as that loss was the fact that she couldn’t turn to Reggie for comfort. How could things have gone so terribly wrong last night?
“Well, one of the benefits of being self-employed is that I can go with you.” Tate blessedly interrupted her sad reverie. “Not only to Hell but to Keys Crossing too, if you like. Provided we’re taking your car, of course.” Tate’s career as a freelance web developer allowed him to take his work wherever he went. Strangely enough, most of the places Tate went, he visited on his bicycle. Part fitness buff, part minimalist, and part environmentalist meant he didn’t own a car.
“Of course.” London looked again at the open closet and wondered what other empty spaces she might find around the condo.
“Reggie texted me,” Tate said. “She said to tell you she’s at her parents’ house for a while.”
The coffee curdled in London’s stomach, and she set her mug on the nightstand with a thud. Reggie had texted Tate. She was reminded of the time when she and Tate were in first grade, and Holly Davis passed a note to Tate explaining that she didn’t want to be friends with London anymore because London thought dogs were cooler than cats.
“That’s big of her. Did she also break up with me through a text to you, or is she waiting until after the funeral?” London threw the covers back, got out of bed, and stalked toward the bathroom. When she opened the door, she noticed Tate had followed. “Do you mind?”
“For what it’s worth,” he said, “I don’t think this is a breakup. She just needs some time.”
London felt tears sting her eyes and blinked them back.
“Sweetie, are you sure you want to do this? We can pack a couple bags, swing by my place and grab a few things, and be on the road. Things will be fine at the store while you’re gone.”
“No.” London shook her head. “This is the way I want to do it. First Hell, then Keys Crossing.”
The Hell in a Handbasket sign was printed in large, cross-stitch letters in black with a red background. The logo emblazoned on the sign was a skull with knitting needles underneath in the place of crossbones. London and Tate entered through the customer entrance, and from halfway back in the store, Jasmine yelled, “Welcome to Hell!” She popped up from behind a display and laughed. “Oh, it’s you. I wondered who was coming in so early. We don’t normally see any customers in here on Sunday until after brunch, and I…” Jasmine’s voice trailed off as she moved closer. “What’s wrong?”
London glanced at Tate, who took Jasmine’s elbow and guided her outside. Jasmine was barely five feet tall and probably ninety-five pounds after a large meal. Still, anyone who assumed she was frail ended up sorry. London watched them through the front windows. When she saw Jasmine cover her mouth and shake her head, she turned away and looked around the store to distract herself. It wasn’t in too bad a shape for Sunday morning.
She looked down at the display Jasmine had been working on. It contained one of London’s favorite pieces she’d created this year: a small satin knapsack with the hand-embroidered words “Bag of Dicks” on it. Inside were a dozen individually wrapped gourmet chocolates in the shape of penises. She’d gotten the idea when she’d jokingly told Grant he could eat a bag of dicks.
The shop was her baby. Long before she’d known the kind of success she’d have expanding, first to a huge online presence, then to some celebrities who ordered her handmade items for gifts and party favors, she’d had a dream to open this store in the Short North, Columbus’s edgy art district. People told her she’d be out of business in a year because there wasn’t a market for raunchy crafts. That was five years ago.
London startled when she heard the door open. Jasmine opened her arms and folded London into a tight hug.
“I’m so sorry, sugar,” Jasmine said, her voice muffled against London’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” said London. She embraced the tiny woman and let herself be held for several minutes. It wasn’t until she felt a sharp pain in her lip that she realized she was biting it to keep from breaking down.
“Now,” Jasmine said, pulling back, “what can I do?”
“I need you to run the store.” London felt foolish. She’d come here under the guise of putting everything in place so she could leave town, but now that she was here, she just wanted some love from Jasmine before dealing with her estranged family.
“You got it,” Jasmine said. “I’ll keep everything under control. I might bring Diego in to help me take pictures and post things to the online store, if that’s okay?” Diego was Jasmine’s son. He went to the Ohio State University and helped out sometimes for pizza and beer money.
“Of course it’s okay,” London said “How are his classes going?”
“Fine. They’d go better if he could leave the girls alone, but what do I know? I’m just his mother.” She shook her head.
“Even if he left the girls alone, they’d never stay away from him,” Tate said.
“Don’t I know it!”
“He’s lucky to have you as his mother,” London said.
Jasmine took both London’s hands in hers. “I am so, so sorry, London.”
“It’s okay,” London said, blinking hard. “She stopped loving me a long time ago.” Her voice broke, and she wrapped her arms around herself. She could use another Jasmine hug, but she felt too vulnerable to ask.
“I don’t believe that,” Jasmine said. “Mothers don’t stop loving, even when they don’t know how to talk to their children.”
“Not all mothers are like you,” said London.
“You trust what your Jasmine tells you,” she said and pulled London into another tight hug, as if she knew. Maybe she did.
“I’ll try,” London said, knowing better than to argue, and acknowledging, if only to herself, that Jasmine was probably right.
“And you,” Jasmine said, putting her hands on Tate’s cheeks. “You take care of her.”
Tate looked out the window of the Holiday Inn and surveyed their view of the east end of Keys Crossing. “Jesus,” he muttered. “This place is like a giant, sealed-off time capsule. Nothing ever changes around here.”
“Oh, that’s not true.” London folded her clothes and put them in the shallow drawers of the cheaply made dresser. “I heard Becky finally took over for her mom at Shelly’s Deli.”
“Becky’s Deli? That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
“True. But I’m starving. Wanna go over and see if the sandwiches are still good?”
Shelly’s Deli was two blocks away, so they walked. Tate was right; nothing ever changed in Keys Crossing. Hole in One Bagels was still there with its ratty sign, as was Brothers’ Barbers. They crossed Main Street with the same flashing yellow traffic light; there wasn’t enough traffic to warrant a light that also turned red and green.
“These are the same menus,” Tate said after they sat at their table.
“Honestly, I’m relieved,” London said. “Remember when Becky took home ec and almost burned down the school when she made that devil’s food cake?”
“Now I do.” Tate laughed. “You’re right, it’s probably for the best if Shelly’s recipes stay intact.”
After they ordered—a club sandwich and chips for Tate, a tuna melt and fries for London—Tate drummed his fingers on the table. “Have you talked to Diana since we got here?”
“I called to let her know we made it to town, yeah.”
“What about your dad?”
London crossed her arms. “No, I haven’t talked to him yet.” Her already tender heart couldn’t endure what she suspected would be another blow after facing her unapproving father.
“Okay. So are we just gonna wing it tomorrow when we show up at the wake?”
“I don’t know what else to do. I haven’t seen anyone in my family in almost twenty years. Diana made it clear she doesn’t want me involved in the service or the planning. I’m kind of surprised she even told me Mom died at all.” London paused when she realized how loudly she was speaking. “I don’t even know why I came.”
Her conversation with Diana upon her arrival in Keys Crossing revealed that their mother died after years of battling cancer that began in her right breast and traveled to her lungs. When London asked why she hadn’t learned of their mother’s illness earlier, Diana’s brittle answer came after a long pause. “You know why.” And London supposed she did. Who knew, Grace might have made requests to keep London in the dark.
She had to push that thought aside because it made her want to run back to the safety of Columbus and the people who actually wanted her in their lives.
“You came because your mother is dead, and it’s time to say good-bye.”
“Good-bye.” London spat the word. “That’s all my family and I know how to say to each other.”
“I know, honey. But this could finally give you some closure. You’ve mourned the loss of your mother for years. Maybe now you can mourn in a productive way and heal a little from all of this. It’s worth being here to at least try.”
“London! Is that you?” Tate and London turned to the freckled, fair-skinned woman approaching their table. “It isyou! My God, I barely recognized you with all that blue hair. Is that a wig?”
“Hey, Becky. Uh, no, this my real hair.”
Becky scanned London’s tattoo-covered arms and shoulders. Her gaze rested for a moment on the nose piercing before settling on her eyes. “Well, my goodness, aren’t you…colorful.”
“Yes, I guess I am.”
“I was so sorry to hear your mom passed,” Becky said. “She was such a great lady, just sweet as could be.”
London’s face felt frozen. “Thank you.” She wasn’t absolutely certain Becky knew she’d been estranged from her family, but she had a pretty good hunch most people in Keys Crossing knew. It would have been big news in this small town.
“Who’s your friend?” Becky had turned her attention to Tate, who paled a little.
“Uh…this is my best friend, Tate.”
“Have you been in here before? You look awfully familiar.” She said the last word as if it was spelled “fermilyer.”
“I have,” Tate said, “but it’s been a long time. Years.”
“I see. Well, I hope you come back again before more years go by. I’ll see you tomorrow at the wake, London.” As quickly as she came, Becky bustled away.
“Jesus, Tate, I feel like such a shit,” London said. “I didn’t even think about how it would be for you coming back here or that you’d have to reintroduce yourself to people. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want you to worry about it. I still don’t.”
“No buts. Let’s get you through these next few days. I’m fine. I don’t care if Becky recognizes me or if anyone else does, for that matter.”
“You’re amazing, you know that? I think I’ll keep you around.”
Tate grinned. “Lucky me.”
Standing outside the funeral home when London and Tate arrived were Grant, Thomas, and to London’s surprise, Reggie. After London took a moment to hug them all, they stood together in a circle, giving London a chance to gather herself before going inside.
“Tate, can I have a smoke?”
“Sure,” he said, exchanging concerned glances with the others. “If that’s what you want.”
“What I want?” London mused, taking a deep drag and coughing a little. She didn’t even know what that was anymore, but it was feeling more and more like something she couldn’t have. She felt deflated, like a balloon with a slow leak. The more she tried to gather herself to deal with what was happening, the more she felt as if she was losing her grasp on everything in her life.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Thomas said.
Grant shook his head. “She doesn’t.”
“Excuse me! You can’t smoke here.” A squat man in a black suit had come outside and was pointing to a No Smoking sign just above their heads.
“Sorry,” London said.
The man folded his hands and said nothing as he watched her put out her cigarette on the bottom of her shoe.
“Well,” London said, “I guess it’s time.” She was surprised when Reggie took her hand. Their fingers intertwined, and London gave a grateful smile when Reggie gave her a reassuring squeeze.
London wasn’t sure what she had expected the inside of Fullerton-Rowe Funeral Home to look like, but it definitely wasn’t pale yellow walls and leafy green curtains. It seemed wrong for the place to look like springtime, the season of new life.
“London?” A wispy woman in a charcoal gray pantsuit stood a few feet away. Two deep creases slashed the space between her eyebrows, and London imagined those were created from wearing many frowns, much like the one on her twin sister’s face right now.
“That’s what you wear to your mother’s service?” Diana hissed as she marched toward them. “Blue hair and a dress with combat boots?”
“And that’s what you say to me when our mother just died, and it’s the first time we’ve seen each other in almost two decades?” She shouldn’t have been surprised that this was how their reunion was starting, but her skin prickled, and her fists balled with shock and anger. How dared she?
“That was your choice, London.”
“No, Diana, it wasn’t. I didn’t choose to be gay, for the thousandth time. God, are we really having this conversation again, here, today? And why am I even a little bit surprised?”
“Girls.” Frederick Craft’s voice broke through the argument, as it had so many times when they were children. “Let’s take a moment in private before people arrive to pay their respects.”
As if he’d been anticipating this moment, the dark-suited man appeared and ushered the three remaining Craft family members into a small room adjoining the main space. London felt like a prisoner being taken away from her loved ones and into life behind bars as she caught a glimpse of her friends huddled outside the door. She hadn’t felt this vulnerable since, well, since the last time she’d seen these people who shared her blood and her name. As the door clicked softly, barring her from her friends, she was struck by the knowledge that she’d never felt at home with the people on this side of the door the way she did with the people on the other side.
“Take a seat,” their father said, gesturing to two folding chairs. London and Diana paused to exchange a glance and sat. London felt more and more like a teenager. Their dad leaned against the Formica countertop and gazed at them. “Many words have gone unspoken for many years. Perhaps we will discuss pertinent matters over the next few days, and perhaps we won’t. But let me be clear: we will not be speaking of anything today except your mother, her memory, and her legacy. That is all that matters right now. Is that understood?”
It was all London could do to keep from rolling her eyes. He wanted them to only talk about their mother? Perfect. How about the fact that Grace Craft had been battling cancer for years, and nobody had bothered to tell London? They could have at least given her a chance to say good-bye at the end, but no. She’d been notified only after her mother was gone, and she’d love to talk about that.
“Girls,” their dad grumbled, “is that understood?”
“Yes,” Diana said. London gave a curt nod.
“Good. It’s going to be a long day. Two hours for the wake, a short break, and the funeral. London, you may want to take a moment or two with your mother before the wake begins. You have only a few minutes.” He turned, opened the door, and stepped aside.
London followed her sister back into the plush main area. Reggie took her hand again as soon as she exited the tiny room.
“Are you okay?”
“No, but I’m dealing. Where are the others?”
“They said they had an errand to run.”
“That’s all they told me,” Reggie said. “They said they’d be back in twenty minutes, tops.”
“Okay. I’m going to go look…go see my mother. Will you come with me?” Reggie nodded and put an arm around her shoulders.
Grace Craft looked small in the dignified, dark wood casket. That was strange because she’d been nearly six feet tall. It must have been an optical illusion brought on by death. London stood over her mother with her arms crossed. She hadn’t seen this woman in nineteen years, and after today, she’d never see her again. London touched her icy, rouged cheek, stroking it for a moment before taking a step back.
To the left stood a collage of pictures from Grace’s life. London felt the reassuring pressure of Reggie’s hand on her lower back as she crossed to the display. There was Grace as a teenager on the way to the prom with her handsome date. Another showed her graduating from college and yet another on her wedding day, gazing up at her husband. There were photos of Grace and Diana in front of Niagara Falls. London remembered that trip well; she and Diana had snuck out of their hotel room that night and got drunk on Boone’s Farm. A picture of Grace, Diana, and their dad sitting at a picnic table looked more recent, maybe within the last five years. There was a picture of Grace handing Diana car keys while Diana proudly held her newly acquired driver’s license up to the camera.
What London didn’t see was any pictures that included her, and while she wasn’t entirely surprised, she was hurt. She’d been completely erased from her family’s history.
“We can fix this.” Tate, Grant, and Thomas appeared beside her. Tate moved between London and the collage and bent down. She looked at Thomas and Grant for clues but they only smiled. When Tate moved, she saw that he’d taped two photos of London and her mother to the bottom of the display. In one, they were feeding each other cotton candy at the state fair when London was about sixteen. In the other, they were standing on top of the Empire State Building with the New York City skyline in the background. It was just after London had graduated from high school.
“How did you do this?” London asked, feeling the pinprick sensation of tears in her eyes.
“I have all those photos from when I went on vacation with your family,” Tate said. “Remember a few years ago when I was obsessed with uploading every picture from my past on Instagram?” London nodded, not able to tear her eyes away from the photos.
“We went to the Walgreens down the street and uploaded the photos on to a thumb drive so we could print them for you,” said Grant.
Finally, London looked at her friends. These were the people she’d chosen to be her family, and never had she been more grateful for that. They were the family she’d always wanted. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“Anything for you,” Tate said.
“London, it’s time.” Diana stood at the entrance of the room. “People are starting to arrive.”
London shook hands of people she’d either known as a child or people she didn’t know at all, who had no idea Frederick and Grace had two daughters.
“London and Diana,” mused a man with slicked back hair. “Your mother liked Great Britain, did she?”
Diana chirped, “She was very knowledgeable about the monarchy. She traced our family tree back to British royalty.”
“I thought the Keys Crossing Bulletin made a misprint in Grace’s obituary when it said she was survived by two daughters,” said one overly perfumed woman. “But here you are!”
London agreed that she was, in fact, there. It was odd and surreal, but she was making it through. There were just a few minutes left before they’d be done with the wake. Only a handful of guests stood near the alcove where the Crafts greeted mourners.
“Do you need anything?” Reggie asked. She had brought London a few cups of water already.
“No, I’m okay,” London said. Reggie kissed her on the cheek before joining the guys in the corner on the opposite side of the room. With that kiss, London felt the bond she and Reggie shared, so strong and sturdy. Despite their recent troubles, London was confident their connection would carry them through much worse than the awkward marriage proposal.
“Disrespectful,” Diana muttered.
“I said you’re being disrespectful,” Diana said, still speaking in a low whisper. “Bringing that person here. And it couldn’t just be a woman or just a black person; it had to be both, didn’t it?”
“That person is my partner,” London said, matching Diana’s low tone. “She’s not a political statement. She’s the woman I love.”
Diana snorted. “Everything you do is a political statement.”
“Girls.” Their father’s voice was hushed, but his warning was clear. London and Diana finished the rest of the wake without any further words, and when it was over, London and her friends stood again under the No Smoking sign with London and Tate passing a cigarette.
“What did she say?” Reggie asked, referring to Diana’s remarks. London shook her head. Reggie didn’t need to hear those ugly words, and London didn’t want to even say them out loud.
London instinctively held the cigarette behind her back when she saw an elderly man approach.
“Don’t worry, you can smoke your cigarette,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve earned it. I won’t tell.”
“Thank you. Mr.…”
“Kopp. Larry Kopp.” He opened his suit jacket and pulled out a business card that read, “Larry Kopp—Attorney at Law,” and below that, “Estate Planning and Wills.” “I’m the attorney in charge of your parents’ estate,” he said. “Since your father is still living, most of your mother’s assets stay with him, but I do need to meet with you. Your mother renewed her will a few years ago, and she added a clause pertaining to you that’s a little…unorthodox.”
London felt her throat tighten. “Unorthodox how?”
“I’d rather not get into it here,” said Larry. “I don’t know how long you’re in town, but I’m available to meet tomorrow morning if you are. Stop by my office; the address is on the card.” He rested his hand on London’s arm. “I’m very sorry for your loss.” His watery eyes looked kindly at her.
“Thank you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He nodded and walked back inside the funeral home.
“What do you think that’s about?” Thomas asked.
“I don’t know. My mom was pretty traditional. If she did something unorthodox, it’s probably not good.”
“You don’t know that,” said Tate.
“I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.” Uneasiness crept into London’s chest. She passed the cigarette back to Tate and held up her hand when he offered her the last drag before he stubbed it out.
The rest of the day was a blur. London felt as if she was watching herself at the funeral and then again at the cemetery. She couldn’t seem to connect to what was happening, to the people around her, or to the finality of the services taking place. She opted to ride to the cemetery in Grant’s enormous SUV with her friends rather than in the limo with her dad and sister.
After the final prayer, she dutifully took a rose from the top of the casket. The mourners began to mingle a bit, but she stood and watched the grave attendants begin lowering the casket into the ground. The cold numbness that seemed contained in her extremities earlier in the day now seeped into her core, making her chest feel chilled and her heart slow.
Car doors slammed, and she saw that people, including her dad and Diana, were leaving. She turned back and watched dirt cover her mother’s casket. She wanted to cry. She wanted the holy heartbreak of tears and soul-wrenching sobs that leave the grief-stricken raw and vulnerable. But that cold numbness blocked everything.
Finally, she turned away from the grave and walked to the outstretched arms of her friends, who were waiting a few headstones away. They walked to Grant’s Suburban, one of two cars left. The other, an older Nissan Maxima, was parked an inch or two from Grant’s back bumper, and a woman inside watched them.
“I wonder who that is,” Reggie said.
“Shit, not today,” said Tate. The woman got out of her car, and London recognized Tate’s mom. Tate took two steps backward.
“Hello, Tatum,” his mom said. “I knew you’d be here.”
“Marsha,” said London, “this is not the time—”
Tate’s mother held her hand up. “I won’t be long.” She walked to Tate, who was motionless, and stared into his eyes. She reached up slowly and touched the whiskers on Tate’s cheek, her fingers barely grazing his face. Tears filled her eyes.
“Mom,” Tate said, “It’s okay. See? I’m still me.” His hand gently covered his mother’s smaller hand.
After a few moments, she pulled back and slapped that same cheek, hard. “Abomination!” she shrieked. “You’re not my daughter!”
Reggie, Thomas, and Grant moved between Marsha and Tate while London went to Tate and hugged him fiercely.
“God is going to punish you for what you’ve done to yourself, Tatum,” Marsha said, heavy tears rolling down her face. “You are dead, do you hear me? You’re dead to me!”
“I hear you,” Tate said, his voice shaking.
“Let’s go,” London said, guiding Tate to the Suburban and opening the door. As they pulled away, London looked back and saw Marsha was on her knees in the grass, her head bent. Her heart broke for her best friend. When she turned to look at him and saw the angry pink mark where Marsha slapped him, the tears she’d been wishing for all day filled her eyes. She took his trembling hand and held it all the way back to the hotel.
“Here’s to our mothers,” London said, clinking her Guinness bottle against Tate’s.
“Yeah, our mothers,” Tate slurred. “Our motherfucking mothers.”
Rather than attend the post-services gathering at her family’s homestead, London hosted a gathering of her own at the hotel bar with the only people she cared to see. They sat in a semicircle around the fireplace in the back, and besides a few people sitting on barstools across the room, they were the only people in the place.
“Is that the first time you’ve seen your mom since you…” Thomas trailed off.
“Since I told her, congratulations, it’s a boy? Yeah,” said Tate. “She made it pretty clear she didn’t ever want to see me again. I wonder what changed her mind.”
“It’s her loss,” Reggie said. “Both of your mothers missed out on a lot. This is a problem with them, not with either of you.”
“I know that,” Tate said. “I do. It doesn’t make what happened today any easier.”
“No, it doesn’t.” London somehow felt worse for Tate than she did for herself. Yes, her mother was gone, but Tate’s mom had gone out of her way to come to a funeral just to be hateful to him. Still numb about her mother’s death, London had no problem feeling a searing thread of anger toward Marsha for what she’d put Tate through.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Tate said to London. “As if you didn’t have enough to deal with right now.”
“Hey, don’t do that,” London said. “This isn’t your fault. Nobody could have predicted what happened, even knowing how crazy your mom is. She outdid herself today.”
“Yeah.” Tate stared into the fire.
Grant pulled London aside. “I hate to do this, but it’s getting late, and Thomas and I have to work in the morning. Will you two be okay tonight?”
“Of course,” London said. “Thank you so much for everything. I’ll walk you guys out.”
Grant and Thomas got in the Suburban and waited with the engine running to give London and Reggie some privacy.
London pulled Reggie into a tight embrace. “Thank you for being here.”
“You don’t have to thank me.” Reggie’s voice was very close to her ear.
London pulled back to look in her eyes. “So I have to meet with my mother’s lawyer in the morning before Tate and I hit the road. Will you be home when I get there?”
Reggie pulled back almost imperceptibly. “I can’t, London. I’m going back to my parents’ place for a while.”
“I see. What is this, then? A breakup?” London took half a step back, breaking their embrace. The thought of going back to her house without Reggie was too much. She was sullen. No matter what kind of argument they had or what they’d disagreed about, London would never make Reggie go through something like losing a parent by herself.
Reggie held on to London’s hips. “Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Put your walls up. I’m not breaking up with you, not now. But I do need some space.”
“Space to do what?”
“To think about how to move forward now that I know you’re not going to marry me.”
“Reggie, why does this have to change anything?”
Reggie dropped her hands to her sides and strode to the car door. “See, that’s the difference between you and me. You’re asking why this has to change anything, and I’m wondering how it doesn’t change everything.” With that, she got in the Suburban and slammed the door.
London watched the Suburban pull away from the hotel. Grant and Thomas raised their hands to wave good-bye, but Reggie stared straight ahead. London’s connection to Reggie that had seemed so strong earlier in the day now felt as tenuous as a few strands from a spiderweb. The loss of that connection hit her harder than anything she’d been through in the last several days. She clenched her hands into tight fists and unclenched them to match the rapid beating of her crumbling heart.
Several beers later, London and Tate stumbled into their room. London went into the bathroom to change into her pajamas, and when she came out, Tate was in her bed.
“Hey!” She laughed when he patted the space beside him.
“Come on,” Tate said. “Get in with me; it’ll be like our slumber parties when we were kids.”
“Okay. Scoot over.” She turned off the lamp, got under the thick comforter beside Tate, and looked up at the ceiling in the darkness.
“Should we tell ghost stories or something?” Tate asked.
“Sure. Have you heard the one about the girl who was haunted by her homophobic mother?”
“Grace has better things to do than haunt you. I’m sure wherever she is right now, she’s already busy redecorating and bossing people around.”
“Her two favorite things.” She thought carefully before asking the question that was on her mind. “Tate?”
“We’re better off without them, aren’t we?”
She couldn’t quite see him in the shadows, but London felt Tate put his elbow on a pillow as he propped his head up. “We’re better off without anyone who can’t love the badasses we are, don’t you think?”
“We are pretty amazing.” She paused. “I’m sorry about your mom, about today. It never occurred to me that she’d show up.”
“I know it didn’t.”
“Did you expect her to be there?”
“I prepared myself as much as possible. Marsha loves a public scene. Remember when she chaperoned our junior high dance and told off Billy Jenkins when he didn’t want to dance with me?”
“God, I’d forgotten about that. We ate our lunches in the bathroom for weeks after that so you could avoid him in the cafeteria.”
“I know. A worse friend would’ve let me sit in that stall by myself. The smells in there didn’t exactly make our food that palatable.”
“There’s no way I would’ve let you go through that alone.”
“You’ll never be alone either, know why?”
“Why?” She was momentarily blinded by a bright light, and when she opened her eyes and squinted, she saw he’d turned on the flashlight on his cell phone and was shining it under his chin.
“Because I’m always watching you, little girl!” He made his voice deep and menacing. “Mwahahaha!”
“Shut up!” She hit him with a pillow and dissolved into giggles. He grabbed his pillow and popped her in the shoulder, and soon they were smacking each other as quickly as their arms would let them. Finally, out of breath but still laughing, they plopped their pillows down and rested their heads on them.
This was what family was supposed to be. She didn’t have the unconditional love of her parents or sister, and she had no idea if she had a future with Reggie, but she was so grateful and relieved to have Tate. His presence filled all those fractured spaces in her heart, and she felt more relaxed than she had since before Reggie proposed, and she got the call about her mom.
Right before she fell asleep, she heard his sleepy voice murmur, “See? Just like when we were kids.”