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“Welcome to the neighborhood.” I pushed the lemon Bundt cake toward the graying man in the doorway as I tried—and failed—to stop staring at his bushy eyebrows. It looked like a caterpillar tête-à-tête on his forehead. “I’m Melissa Eller, but everyone just calls me Lissa. I live in the noisy two-story across the street.”
“Noisy?” The caterpillars wobbled upward.
“I have two young sons.” I shrugged. “I may as well start apologizing now.”
Gorgeous Abby, my best friend despite always showing me up with the pulled-together look she wore without effort—today in a DKNY silk t-shirt and black peplum slacks she snagged the last time we shopped at the outlet store because they fit her but not post-pregnancy me—stepped up and held out a hand to shake his. “Abby Newlin. I don’t live in Rogerston anymore, but I’m a longtime family friend so you’ll see me around. Don’t mind Lissa. She worries too much.”
“Worry?” The caterpillars shifted close together again.
“About the boys and their antics,” Abby added. “They’re actually quite sweet.”
He took the cake from my hands and said, “We’re the Harpers, John and Jane.”
I attempted my own handshake, but he kept a firm hold on each side of the plate. Apparently the floral-print J. Jill shirred tee I’d grabbed on that same outlet trip as Abby’s shirt and slacks, the cute top I’d thrown on today because I thought it made me look trustworthy and friendly, wasn’t doing the job. His gaze darted to some place over my left shoulder instead of meeting my smile.
“The wife is still unpacking.” He kept watch over the landscape behind us as he spoke. “We have a lot to do.”
“Absolutely,” I said a little too brightly, and shoved my hands into my jeans pockets. “Been there, done that. Not a lot of fun. We just wanted to come by and let you know if you need anything you only need to ask.”
The caterpillars gave each other a smidgeon of distance as some tension left his expression and voice, and he almost looked at my face. “I’ll let my wife know. Appreciate it.”
I took a step back and nearly fell down the stoop. Abby grabbed my arm and saved me from an ungraceful fall.
“We’ll be going,” Abby said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Yes. Be looking for you,” he said.
More likely he’d be looking out for us and running the other way. Not trusting myself to answer and just make everything worse, I waved and kept flashing what I knew was my idiotic grin.
We crossed the street with me slightly behind Abby. The soft highlights in her shoulder-length chestnut hair made me wonder what a salon could do to help my sadly overlong cut I’d recently given up on in favor of simply putting into a thick coffee-colored side-braid every day. I was frowning at the ragged tail below the rubber band that hung a bit below my collarbone, so almost missed when Abby said, “Remember, you only get what you expect out of life.”
“What? How did you know what I was thinking?”
She laughed. “Lissa, you’re an open book.”
We hit my front yard, and she reached over and gave me a one-armed hug, reprimanding, “Don’t expect people to be annoyed at your children and they won’t be.”
Okay, so she didn’t mean my hair and wasn’t a mind-reader. Thank goodness. There were some secrets I kept even from Abby.
“Fat chance of that. You haven’t heard the complaints through the years,” I replied.
“They’re just rambunctious boys.”
Abby skipped up the steps ahead of me to push open the front door, then gasped and leaned against the wooden frame. I kept walking, dazed as I surveyed the carnage. We’d only been gone five minutes. I swear, only five minutes. The boys were under orders to clean their room. As we left, we’d heard them thundering up the stairs, and our blonde Labrador retriever, Honey, galloped right behind them. We had actually chuckled over the booming noise.
I never expected the complete chaos now enveloping the living room, but it proved the point I’d been making only moments before. Apparently, the boys didn’t believe me when I told them earlier in the week they couldn’t fly by attaching their Batman capes to the ceiling fan. Said ceiling fan, denuded of two blades, currently wobbled valiantly in a drunken rotation above our heads. A chair and one end table were knocked over, and I presumed staked a claim to where each boy landed. Wood slivers littered the durable gray carpet, as well as what I took to be fallout from the tops of the fan blades. I admit it; I don’t clean my ceiling fans often enough. Maybe the mini-dust bunnies helped cushion their fall.
Abby continued making gasp-like sounds. I looked for blood. I found the blades, but not my two sons.
“Boys! Front and center!”
Wide-eyed faces topped by tousled brunette hair popped up between second floor banisters, with Honey padding in close to anchor the far end. Thin sunlight streaked through the upstairs sidelight and washed over my sons to give each a glowing halo. Like that would help anything. I pointed to my feet. “Down here. Immediately!”
Longest trek downstairs I’d ever witnessed. Even the dog moved in slow motion. Three heads and faces downcast. All eyes focused on every single step.
I didn’t see any bruises, but a torn cape came to light behind one chair when Jamey, the oldest, let his gaze stray in that direction.
“Take a tumble, did we?”
Each boy nodded.
My just-turned-five-year-old, Mac, short for Mackenzie, my maiden name, rubbed his elbow. They both gave me a negative headshake. I figured it would be enough to watch for limps, but I ran an exploratory hand over each head to feel for any lumps. The boys were clear. A second later I checked the dog, too. She didn’t yelp, so I assumed she’d been smart enough to stay out of the way of the flying siblings.
“Going to do it again?” I asked my Batboys.
They shook their heads once more, eyes still cast downward.
“How in the world did you even get up there?”
“I boosted Mac onto the bookcase, then we climbed up it and jumped.”
My heart quit beating for a second, when I thought about the possibly of their pulling down the heavy oak piece, so it and the books landed on top of them. “The bookcase is not a ladder. Never do that again.”
“Okay,” Jamey said. Mac shrugged. That didn’t bode well. What else would they think of trying before I had a chance to squelch the idea? Good heavens. I changed tactics and knelt to give each boy a hug. “You boys can’t scare me this way. Wild flying maneuvers and scaling tall furniture can mean bigger accidents than what you had today. You’d break my heart if either of you got seriously hurt.”
“We’re sorry,” Mac took the lead this time.
“Good. Remember that.” I got back to my feet. “But just being sorry isn’t enough. I never want you to try anything that dangerous again, so you boys will pay for a new ceiling fan with your birthday and Christmas money.”
Jamey had the grace to look ashamed and nodded. That’s what came from being the more mature seven-year-old, I supposed. Mac looked up in horror, then shrugged and gave an agreeable head bob.
“Back upstairs. Room inspection in thirty minutes.”
They ran like I’d set fire to their heels. It would have given me a warm feeling about possibly having their respect, but I knew better. They were hoping if they followed instructions with no argument I might forget about the threat to take away their gift money.
Abby stood quietly beside me.
“Come on in. Ignore the mess. Looks like they tried turning the house into the Bat Cave,” I said, moving toward the kitchen so she would follow.
“I expect nothing less from the dynamic duo,” Abby replied and grabbed a banana from the wooden fruit bowl I optimistically kept full to entice my hooligans to eat healthy.
“Hopefully they’ll actively shovel out their room now.”
The shoveling comment was motherly hyperbole, but from the sudden thumps and scurrying noises that emanated over our heads, I wondered how much my words rang true.
Abby, ever the optimist and doting pseudo-aunt, said, “Sounds promising.”
I shrugged. “Don’t let them hear you say that. They need no encouragement.”
“Have an ETA on when Dek will be home?” she asked.
My husband, Derek, went personally and professionally by Dek Eller, because our family was drawn to using nicknames, and he was an award-winning globe-trotting photojournalist. I was eagerly anticipating his return—not just to see his handsome face, but because he’d scooped up a double dose of the monthly expense money to get him through his current assignment needs before he left. Leaving me to wait impatiently for the reimbursement check from his media conglomerate employer, and I had to continue waiting until he returned. Recently, two photographers had digitally enhanced some of their receipts, so the auditors now required all expenses turned in as a hard copy until further notice.
When we first married, he worked for only one newspaper, but every business has spin nowadays. Unfortunately, the spin in any career associated with journalism has spiraled downward for the last decade. Dek shifted with the times and signed a contract with a syndicate to stay readily employed without resorting to free-agent status. He constantly hung onto steady employment by networking connections and jaw-dropping photographic successes—but neither was enough to keep our bills paid if I didn’t recycle every copper penny until it was as thin as aluminum foil.
I took a deep breath before answering. “We skyped last night. He left Kabul yesterday and is hoping to be in London by Friday. But he has to head into Turkey first.”
“He was euphoric.” I shrugged. “Says he has some amazing shots he took outside of his assignment parameters. Has an idea for a project. Scares the heck out of me just thinking about it, but he feels it’s a winner.”
“Like a Pulitzer?” she asked
“That’s always the brass ring, naturally. But I’m guessing more along the lines of magazine layouts. Like National Geographic.”
“He’s worked with them before. I still have the issues.”
I nodded. “He loves magazines because it feels like his work has more permanence. Especially when he sees his photos in copies of old magazines in doctors’ office. His digital shots for the conglomerate’s different newspapers are all posted in color, of course, but there’s just something extra when he can pull out a magazine and point to his work.”
“And his employer is okay with this freelance stuff?”
“Dek had the okay specifically added to his contract. They gave him some grief at first, because they wanted to own everything, but ultimately realized they’d lose him if they held out. At last year’s Christmas party, his immediate boss admitted it was probably the best thing they did, anyway. He said whenever Dek sells outside projects, people take more notice of his name, and that translates into more public interest for the conglomerate’s newspapers that publish him as well.
“Nice he has their blessing, even if it did take a little to make it forthcoming,” Abby said, pulling out a chair of the recycled set I used at my white kitchen table. The pine table had been purchased cheap at an auction, and I stripped the wood and repainted it white. The chairs were all orphans of a similar design, that I’d picked up at garage sales and pseudo-matched using a high-gloss red paint, brightening up the kitchen at the same time. The final touch had been strawberry print chair pads I’d made to match the curtains in the rooms’ big windows.
My laptop was open on the table and cycling through the rollercoaster pictures I used as a screen saver. Something about facing potential virtual death by speed and height anytime I woke up my computer made real life seem a little less hectic. A couple of years ago I began blogging about finds I’d made that kept our family’s budget in the black each month. Well, it at least stayed in the gray area. I also tweeted new discounts and buyer rewards that my subscribers and I found and reported. After learning how to monetize the blog—through trial and error and the benevolent grace of a neighbor’s high school son who regularly talked geek to my computer and web page—I’d built a small business to aid other online families operating in the same middle-class trench where my family struggled each day. And I even made a little money doing it.
Abby knocked the tabletop as she sat down, and the webpage editor showing my latest blog post popped up in bright red, white, and turquoise—my branding colors for the Frugal Lissa Finds blog.
“Anything good come up lately?” she asked, scrolling through my words. “I could use a new purse.” She frowned a minute, then added, “And a new job.”
I’d already had the feeling she was home this weekend for reasons other than to connect with friends and family. Good to know my instincts were on-track. However, an almost lifetime friendship with Abby taught me I’d have to tread carefully to learn the full scope of how things stood. She could be an impetuous shopper, but she was never an impetuous talker.
While my friend pursued bargains like it was an Olympic sport, as an associate attorney at a large Dallas firm Abby could afford to pay MSRP on most of what she wanted. I, on the other hand, lived up to the Frugal Lissa moniker I used for my blog, because even “seventy-five percent off designer prices” never fit into our family budget. I was more about the needs in life than the luxuries, but I loved letting others know about great sale options.
“Yeah, click on ‘accessories finds’ on the left-hand toolbar and check out the current coupon codes and deals,” I said. I grabbed a Post-it note from the desktop holder and jotted a cryptic note to remind Dek to turn in his receipts ASAP and slapped it onto the refrigerator. I added for Abby’s benefit, “Betsey Johnson has a good deal now on some of her bags, and one from Coach just went off but if you hurry, they may still redeem the offer. A lot of manufacturers give an unadvertised grace period to keep from ticking off consumers.”
“Thanks. I’ll look. I never catch all the sales and bargains you do. But I’ve become a devotee to RetailMeNot, and I’ve signed on for JoinHoney and have their extension sitting on my Chrome browser for online purchases.”
“There are several other good saving apps. When you get back home, look on my ‘Jingle Finder’ page for all the ones I recommend. Helps keep money in your pocket, instead of paying too much every time. Before you make a final decision to purchase, paste the purse details into a search engine to see what other deals might pop up. I’ve noticed stores like Saks will offer even bigger discounts on things like designer bags than the manufacturers’ sales, to keep customers from straying. And since you’re in Dallas, you don’t have to pay to ship.”
My friend frowned, as she scrolled through one of the blog pages. “Maybe I’ll hit the outlet mall next weekend. Might be easier. Wish you could come with me.”
A shopping day with Abby, looking for bargains, sounded like fun, even though she would be doing all the buying. As I tossed one of the straggly torn capes into the trash, I changed the subject and said, “Want a cookie? Don’t worry, I made them last night after the boys went to bed.”
We’d had embarrassing moments in the past, incidents when surprise ingredients were discovered in the mix after one of my lovely sons “helped me bake.” Nothing lethal, but seriously more imaginative than most adults wanted when they bit into a snack.
Abby shook her head.
“They’re chocolate chip cookies with pecans,” I coaxed, knowing her weakness for anything with nuts. Or anything associated with chocolate, too.
“Thanks, but no.” She walked to the fridge and grabbed us each a can of Diet Coke. My one big weakness in life. Well, Diet Coke, margaritas, and sweet peach tea, but I didn’t have the last two in the house at the moment. We popped the tops simultaneously.
“Think the boys will get their room cleaned before their dad gets back to town?” she asked.
“That’s debatable.” I laughed. “And I’m not sure he wouldn’t make it worse. But he flies in next weekend.” I’d hoped he could be around while the boys were on spring break. But since it had taken me until the Saturday afternoon before school started up again on Monday to even get them to clean their room, it was probably just as well. I would likely have three blades ripped from the ceiling fan if Dek had been here, too. Sigh… Yes, Jamey and Mac inherited their superhero ideas from their over-imaginative father. I propped my elbows on the counter and asked, “When are you going back to Dallas? Is this a long weekend for you?”
“Nope, I have a Southwest flight booked for tomorrow evening.”
“We barely have time for any fun.” I’d picked her up at the Tulsa airport that morning. Her bag was still in the entryway, and her mother had phoned her cell twice to ask when she was coming home. Her phone buzzed for the third time since she’d arrived. She pulled it from the pocket of her slacks and frowned.
“Your mom again?”
“Yes.” She touched the screen. “Hi, Mom.”
I went to the laundry room to give her some privacy. Towels were in a pile on the floor and the sheets to my bed were in the washer. I pulled out the wet bedding, giving each piece a shake and a squeeze, for one last shot at reducing moisture before I tossed it in the dryer. To make everything fluff and dry faster, I slow-pitched in three wool balls I’d made from old sweaters the boys outgrew, before I hit the On switch. Then it was time to take on the load of dirty towels. The temperature dial on my washer stayed almost permanently set on cold, since statistics proved ninety percent of the cost of washing clothes was heating water. To the soap and softener dispensers, I added detergent and scented vinegar.
“You use vinegar in your wash?”
“Eek!” I squealed. Luckily, I’d already poured the liquid into the machine. “You scared me.”
“Sorry. I made my mom mad quickly enough to get off the phone in record time. I am now officially the bad daughter.” She switched subjects. “What does the vinegar do?”
“A capful of vinegar is a nearly free way to give clothes all the softness of the expensive brand name fabric softeners. It’s great for sheets and towels,” I said. “I also leave two or three recycled balls of aluminum foil in the dryer to eliminate static cling.”
“Totally safe. Neither you nor the dryer will get zapped by the silver balls. But it does make the process noisier, as everything bounces while the drum rotates.”
“I need to come home more often. You’d probably save me a fortune if I could regularly pick your brain on money-saving ideas.”
“Just nickels and dimes each time, but they all add up. I also hang up all the t-shirts, jeans and sweatshirts to dry, then toss them into the dryer for only five minutes to fluff all the wrinkles out before they get put away. You can save a good chunk of change over the year doing that, and your clothes will last longer.”
It would be wonderful seeing my best friend more than once every three months or so, but I knew it was better to keep my end of the conversation running along frugal lines when it came to advice. Abby’s grumbling was her way to work through whatever she needed to think about until she made up her mind about anything stressful. After letting her thought percolate for a while, she’d talk about what really bugged her.
Out of college, she wanted to head to Big D to practice law. Since I’d dropped out the year before to globe-trot with Dek, I had no say in the matter. So, just because I was back in Rogerston and wishing I could see her more often, it didn’t mean I had a right to state my opinion. But I could offer persuasion in a different manner.
“How about after you have dinner with your parents, we take over the couch and the big screen and watch rom-coms, so the boys start moaning and head upstairs to escape?”
“That will send them to bed early?”
“It will if I let them watch TV on my bed instead.”
“Can we have cookies?”
I laughed. “You can have all the cookies you want right now.”
Abby slammed her palms on the countertop that doubles as my folding table and ironing board. “What are we waiting for? Close the lid on that washer and follow me.”
“I knew you’d never hold out when chocolate is involved.”
However, as we reentered the kitchen, I decided to press a little. “Cookies aren’t the only things you can change your mind about.” The glare I got could melt steel. “I’m not saying you have to open up about everything.” I pulled off the top of the Rubbermaid container and passed it her way. “Simply letting you know you have whatever support is needed.”
“There are some decisions I have to make, sure, but I’m not ready yet,” she said, her huge brown eyes somewhat downcast as she bit into the moist cookie.
Like I didn’t already know she had to make her own choices. It was time for a diversion.
“Come on.” I waved for her to follow me. As we passed the staircase, I called up, “Boys! Abby and I are going out to the workshop. I’ll be making a room inspection when we get back.”
Both heads appeared over the railing.
“How long will you be?” Jamey asked, his eyes big and panicked looking.
“Long enough to show Abby my newest project.”
“Like an hour?” he asked.
“I told you already you only have half-an-hour.”
Mac had already forgotten the gravity of the situation and was playing tug-of-war with Honey in the hall.
“That’s not one of my good hand towels is it?”
“I don’t think so,” Mac said, trying to hide the cloth behind his back while Honey continued grabbing it.
Jamey groaned, then wrangled the towel from Honey’s mouth. “Stop it, stupid, you’re going to mess up everything.”
“Don’t call Honey stupid.” Mac punched Jamey in the arm.
“Ow! I wasn’t calling her stupid. You’re the stupid one. Making Mom mad about the towel when she’s already mad at us for the fan.”
“I didn’t make her mad!”
I raised my voice, so they could hear me over the exchange. “Boys, stop this minute.” Pointing toward their bedroom, I fought to make my voice sound stern, though it took everything I had to keep from cracking up. “Neither of you should call anyone stupid—person or canine. Get in your bedroom and finish cleaning. I’ll be back soon, and whenever that is, I’d better find your whole space looking terrific. Not discover that everything has been shoved into the closet.”