Unexpected Gifts, page 1
S. R. Mallery
Copyright © 2013 Sarah Mallery
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Mockingbird Lane Press—Maynard, Arkansas
Library of Congress information in publishing data
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Mockingbird Lane Press
Cover Graphic Design by Jamie Johnson
To Rick, Chris, Liz, and Judy
As for my unexpected gifts, first and foremost, I am grateful to Regina Williams, whose continuous support and gentle guidance makes being a new author a far easier experience than I could have thought possible. Also, to Jamie Johnson, whose creativity and patience was a godsend.
To my main reader, Judith Kilcullen, with her non-ending encouragement, suggestions, and stimulating discussions at every stage of this writing process, you have become my literary lifeline; to Nicola Kaftan, whose constructive criticisms kept me honest; to Robin Guzman, whose enthusiasm in my darker moments gave me hope; to my father, Jerome Ross, whose television scripts infused me with a love of plots and characters; to Lisha Cunningham, for her contribution to the book's title and together with Sharon Cox, Nancy Lourié-Markowitz and Ruth Gregory, cherished friendships; to Chris and Liz, who make me proud, to Andrew Ross, who makes me laugh, and last, but by no means least, to Rick, whose steadfast devotion is what sustains me—I am indebted to you all.
Sonia's Family Tree
Chapter I: Discoveries
The room was bathed in early morning gray, a time and color that had always made Sonia ill at ease. Shapes, clear in bright daylight, were now unidentifiable and the gentle snores next to her were not calming. They were simply reminders that someone else was totally at peace while she lay wide awake, her mind running a shot-gunned sprint.
Squinting, she could just about make out Mike's motorcycle jacket, his helmet, black jeans, and chain-linked wallet, tossed together in a heap over his leather sofa. She closed her eyes and tried some deep breathing, but everything came out awkward, jerky. As the gray lightened, she began tapping her fingers double-time against the edge of the mattress before it suddenly occurred to her: Enough is enough.
Flinging back the covers, she swung her legs out onto the floor and stood up. No worries about Mike stirring. He was a sound sleeper aided by a boozed late-night head start. Besides, she was anxious to return home to cram for the psychology exam she would most probably fail from all her recent procrastinations.
In her studio apartment, her study nook was her pride and joy: cleared, pristine desk—check. Pens, pencils, highlighters in a high-tech cup off to one side—check. Overhead shelves loaded with her textbooks, a dictionary and thesaurus—check. Paper, envelopes, labels, Whiteout, stapler and staples, housed in a drawer—check. On her left, a computer/printer—check, a single mug coaster for those times when her need for a caffeine jolt outweighed her sense of order—check. She settled into her ergonomic chair, pulled down her psych text and notes, and high-lighter pen in hand, did a double tap to the right, then the left, before proceeding to study.
She would have surely done an all-nighter had it not been for her mother's call.
“Hey, Mom. What's up?” Freud was quickly forgotten. “Mom, just tell me what happened. Well, what did you do? Come on, that didn't happen from out of nowhere! He did? Oh, I know…” she nodded. “He does do that. Look, maybe if you tried to…oh, you did that? Well, what did he say? Okay, okay, I'm coming.” Hanging up, her sigh was more than audible.
Pushing a shaky forefinger onto the doorbell, Sonia expected the worst; the slow scrape/flap of padded slippers behind the door only hinted at what her mother Lily was probably experiencing; had experienced, in fact, for years, each time her dad, Sam, conducted a tirade.
She could hear the lock jiggle and click (a New York City ritual, even in Queens) and braced herself. Still, she hated seeing her mom's haggard demeanor. How bad was her father tonight?
“Oh, Mom…” she said simply, pulling the fractured woman into her arms.
Lily let the dam burst—ugly, hacking sobs that bounced off the walls and hardwood floor, while Sonia held her close, making shusssshing noises as she stroked Lily's back. When she felt her mother's sobs lessen and fade into a quiet wheeze, the two women made their way to the kitchen, where Sonia deposited Lily onto a chair and put on a fresh pot of chamomile tea.
Lily mopped her eyes with her bathrobe sleeve. “Thanks honey. Sorry to be so out of control.” Her voice, although weak, no longer sounded raw.
“Mom, come on. You've obviously been through a lot. That's okay, it's okay.” She double-tapped the stove edge several times and continued. “I just want to know what happened, that's all. I mean, you've certainly been through this before, but tonight seemed particularly bad. So?”
Lily started welling up again. “I can't talk about it. I just can't. He said something that really hurt me tonight.”
“Not now, Sonia. I need to clear my head.” She leaned back in the chair, closed her eyes, and waited for the teapot to whistle.
Sonia shrugged then tapped five more times. The room was silent save for the teapot making its last toot before she turned off the burner. The scene was all too familiar, pretending to be the voice of reason to one of her parents as she wrestled with her own nerves and galloping thoughts.
After the tea was poured, honey added, Sonia felt it safe enough to speak. “So where is he?” She looked over at her mom's mascara-streaked face.
“He's in the den. Drunk as usual.” Her words spat out like water flicked onto a hot greased pan. “Go see him, if you can stand it.”
Trudging down the hall towards God knows what, Sonia fought the urge to touch the walls on either side of her as she entered the den. Creatures of habit, her parents had no thoughts of redecorating; worn, comfortable furniture suited them just fine, as long as their favorite knick-knacks were scattered around them.
The only noise was the soft, rhythmic snores of her father, twisted up in his wheelchair, his chin resting on his chest, his arms hugging his knees. Her first instinct was to shift him. That's how he got spasms the last time he had stayed in that position for too long, but she took her time, soaking up all the paraphernalia on the walls, bookcases, coffee table, and sideboard.
She strolled about the room as if she were a guest invited to dinner, picking up objects for a closer look. Sam's archery award, given to him while a senior in high school, as well as his hand-made Yew wood bow, were both nailed to the wall. She grew up listening to Sam brag about how good he was at this event, maybe even good enough for the Olympics, if only he had had more discipline. A bowed, overstuffed bookcase sat on the far end of the room as well as coffee table books on display. The World of Dickens, The History of Antique Cars, and Outer Space reminded Sonia just how eclectic and bright her parents were and suddenly, she felt a tremendous sadness at how far they had strayed.
Lily was represented,
In an Art Deco frame, sat her great-grandparents, Daria and Anatolie—or Tony for short—with their daughter, Rose Balakov. Were Tony's dark circles from sleeplessness or just his natural complexion? Word had it that he had a tough construction job or some such thing. His handsome face looked prematurely lined, although his suit was far more fashionable than his wife's simple house-frau sheath. Yet nothing could detract from her dark, luscious hair, alabaster skin, and emerald green eyes. They were definitely not leaning into one another. A good twelve inches spanned between them, enough to sandwich in their daughter Rose with her haunted eyes. The next photograph, tinged and speckled with age, showed Andrei Balakov, haughty in his stiff white shirt and collar and Eugenia Balakov in a folk costume, her hair swept up tight into a bun, both bearing the same look as immigrants before them—proud, clinging onto any shred of dignity.
But her favorite was her parents' wedding picture. Two long-haired college students in hippy wedding garb, a floral dress for Lily, a garland of heather on her head and for Sam, a long sleeved lace-up Kurta shirt and Guatemalan vest, the green backdrop of Central park behind them. Sonia smiled at their innocence, their happiness back then.
“When did you get here?” Sam's gravelly voice broke the silence.
“Hey, Dad. What's going on?” She strode over to him and hoisting him upright, straightened the few tuffs of hair on the top of his head.
He made a half-strangled gurgle in his throat before answering. “None of your business, that's what's going on!”
Suddenly Lily poked her head in from the doorway. “Ask him why he said the things he said to me tonight. Ask him!”
Sam flipped his chair into unlock and spun around to face his wife, his face mottled red. “Get the hell out of here, Lily!” he roared. “Out!”
Sonia stood over her father. Once her hero, she looked down at him now, thinking how old and fragile he seemed. Just a mass of angry words. When exactly did that start? She glanced past him to his hospital bedside table and saw what he must have been reading earlier, before the drink and outrage overtook him. The Agent Orange Aftermath was about two and a half inches thick, bloated from dog-eared and alcohol-stained pages.
“Some light bedtime reading, huh, Dad?” Sometimes gentle kidding worked with him.
“What the hell do you know about my problems? Huh? Do you have to deal with splitting headaches that wake you up in the middle of the night? Huh?” His four blinks rapid fired and his body twitched as he arched up in his chair.
She shook her head slowly, knowing where this was heading.
“Do you have trouble sleeping? Skin rashes? Numbness? What about bloody urine or what about the fact that it burns like crazy whenever I go to the bathroom. Huh? Huh?”
“Okay, Dad, I get it.”
All of a sudden Lily popped in for more. “Sam, leave the girl alone. It's not her fault!”
“Get, out!” He headed after Lily, his wheelchair a blur, his face dark purple as he slammed his wheels against the doorway, chipping away tiny bits of painted wood.
“Mom! This is not helping. Just stay away!” Sonia yelled above the metal thumps. What the hell was the matter with her? All of a sudden, it occurred to her that maybe her father wasn't the only villain in this domestic drama. Two can play at this game.
Lily disappeared then, leaving Sam to his full-blown rant, his words harsh and unintelligible. But after a few minutes, Sonia noticed his tone slowly softening until finally the room was quiet except for Sam's body shifting. When he finally gazed up at his daughter with dull eyes, he whispered, “Go get your mother for me, please, Sonia. I want to go to bed now.” Sonia took off to retrieve her mother and by the time they came back, Sam had lowered his chin to his chest and closed his eyes, his signal for Lily to wheel him over to his bedroom on the ground floor to set him up for the night.
From outside his room, Sonia could hear their hushed voices doing the same routine she had heard her entire life, the Getting-Into-Bed routine. Tiptoeing up to his door, she gently pushed it open a crack to peer in. There was Lily, exiting the bathroom with Sam, first wiping off his catheter, then tucking it away onto his side. As she bent over to lock him down to the floor for traction, he made a single gesture that took Sonia by surprise. Using his finger tips mostly, he softly stroked his wife's arm twice, then collapsed, totally depleted.
Lily calmly instructed him to place his hands around her neck while she braced herself; legs apart, back erect, and knees bent, to pick up his body weight. At first they moved as a coordinated unit, but when they both toppled back down together onto his chair, she stood up.
“Sam, I can't do this alone.”
He came alive then, gathering whatever ounce of strength he had left to help her out. Placing both hands on his wheelchair arms and pushing up, he grunted loudly, but managed to raise his body up enough for her to elevate him onto the bed. Once on the bed, they both lay there for several seconds, her on top of him, both taking syncopated breaths. Finally, she got up and with one quick movement, rotated his rag doll legs over from the edge and straightened him out on the bed.
“Help me, Sam. Move up,” she implored, and he opened his eyes, blinking a couple of times before complying. Together they inched his body up the mattress, he, by bending his arms and pushing, she, by hoisting his body so she could position him better onto his pillows. Puffing slightly, she then raised his head by pressing the Head Up button on his remote, then shuffled off to the bathroom to get his toothbrush, paste, and wash bin.
Sonia remained at the door, silent, totally immersed in their world. Is this what they went through every night, or only when he was drop dead drunk? Probably every night, she thought as she retreated down the hall to the kitchen, tapping onto the right wall, an ache growing in her chest.
Back in the faded yellow kitchen, breathing deeply, she closed her eyes, and listened to her mom drag in and begin putting things away in the cupboard.
“It didn't start out this way for us, you know.” Lily's voice sounded thoughtful.
Sonia nodded. Through hooded eyes she could see her mom, limp from the night's exertions, wearing her familiar apron with some leftover spittle from one of Sam's coughing fits.
“He had so much promise, so much intellect. Such a breath of fresh air from my parents. We had known each other as kids, you know. He was my best friend, and everyone knew he was going to accomplish a lot in his life. I mean, he was all set to get his B.A., then go on to graduate school, but that damn draft lottery came in, and that was it.”
“Yeah. Before 1969 he got a deferment every year, just for being a student. But then it all changed. The government began randomly pulling out numbers that represented birthdays and if your birthday matched up with that date, you were out of luck.”
“Wow. I guess his number came up?”
“Yep.” She paused, then, “But what's with you, honey?”
Sonia shook her head. “You don't want to know.”
Sonia stirred her tea. “Okay, here's the thing. I think I'm—I'm lost.”
Lily raised both her eyebrows. “What does that mean?”
She watched her mom scrunch up her face like she always did when she was about to divulge a revelation. “Maybe you should get outside yourself. Explore other things.”
“What kind of things?” Sonia asked.
“Oh, I don't know. Wait a minute! There are quite
“I could use some.” Sonia got up and gave her mother a tight squeeze before following her up to the second floor. Upstairs, Sonia watched her mom reach up to grab an old key from a fish eye hook embedded in the wall.
Opening the attic latch, she turned back to Sonia. “Brings back memories, doesn't it?”
Sonia gave her a thin-lipped smile and tapped the door jamb twice.
The two women climbed the last set of stairs in the dark, their shoes clacking against the wooden steps. The attic itself was almost pitch black—a soundless, foreboding room evoking strong, creepy memories of Sonia's childhood, when she would force herself to come upstairs mostly to prove to the world she wasn't such a wimp after all. The same dankness filled her nostrils now as it had so many years before and she shivered, hoping her mom would turn on the light soon, using the long, straggly string that had managed to survive two decades of pulls.
She could sense Lily's hand waving helplessly through the air and smothered an urge to call out, “Come on Mom, pull the string.”
There was an old steamer trunk at the far end of the room, rusty, somewhat threadbare, and artistically draped with a cobweb or two over its corner edges. Yet opened, it looked cheerful, with a light tan interior and cardboard boxes, all labeled and colored coded.
Raising the lid back even further, Sonia noticed near the top were two large cardboard boxes marked Sam Weylan and Lily Weylan, in chartreuse psychedelic letters. Beneath that, was a rectangular box with Rose and Peter Hanson stamped on it. Under that, even more boxes.
Lily's box was opened with the careful attention of a docent in a museum, and although at first glance it did look quite interesting, Sonia blurted out, “Ah, Mom, could we take a look at Dad's stuff?”
Lily mumbled something unintelligible and put the box back, but when Sam's box was exposed, Sonia gasped. A cornucopia of the Vietnam experience flooded her senses and at the same time, left a slight dread. Did she really want to unleash all their secrets?