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“Every time I see Maravelle I feel guilty,” she tells Ben.
“You just feel guilty period, Shelby. If you want to make things right with Maravelle, then do something,” Ben says.
Shelby puts down her veggie burger and narrows her eyes. Is this merely good advice or the suggestion of some higher power or Helene speaking to her through Ben?
“Such as?” Shelby has again begun to tap her foot whenever she’s anxious, which she did when she had her breakdown. Leave it to Shelby to be upset about a raise. Ben had picked up a bunch of tulips for her after she’d told him the news. She told him she hated tulips before she realized it would hurt his feelings.
“Do something that would be meaningful to her,” Ben suggests. “Something that will show her you’re a true friend.”
“But I’m not,” Shelby says.
She’s certain that it’s guilt, not friendship that drives her to buy two tickets for a Mariah Carey concert at Madison Square Garden, one for Maravelle and one for her daughter. They cost a fortune.
“Scalpers have to make a living,” Ben says when he hands over the cash.
Ben has paid for the tickets, but Shelby is the one Maravelle hugs when she’s called into Shelby’s new office and is given the envelope containing tickets for two seats in the tenth row. “You’re the best,” Maravelle says. She does a little jump for joy. “Not that I’m so easily bought off. But this is a good beginning.”
“It’s a beginning and an end,” Shelby tells her. “My bribery goes no further.”
Later in the week, when Shelby and Ben are in bed, he starts talking about money. Not exactly romantic. He thinks it’s great that Shelby is getting a raise. Look at how expensive the concert tickets were. Then he drops what Shelby considers to be a conversational bomb.
“Think of how much people pay to have weddings.”
Shelby sits up in bed. She can feel the pulse in the base of her throat. She’s read that people who are about to be shot feel that pulse and nothing else. “Who’s talking about weddings?”
“No one. It’s just that people pay a fortune for so much excess, like an eight-layer cake that tastes like white bread, when they could easily elope and spend the money on a trip to Mexico.”
“Are you planning a trip to Mexico?” Shelby is wearing black cotton underwear and a T-shirt. She’s pale and bald and her feet are thin and long and now she’s the manager of a chain store when she doesn’t even believe in chain stores. She’s a mom-and-pop-store kind of person. She starts thinking about her father, who runs the family business. Maybe she’s inherited her entrepreneurial skills from him. Ben is staring at her in some strange, hopeful way. Is he asking her to marry him? “Are you talking about a honeymoon?” she says in a thin voice.
“It’s a what-if situation.”
Shelby grabs Blinkie off the floor and holds him between her and Ben. When Blinkie falls asleep he rumbles. Ben is quiet and dreamless. Or at least that’s what he’s told Shelby. Perhaps he’s dreaming of Mexico, of aquamarine water and white birds, perhaps she’s beside him in his dreams and that’s why he calls out to her. Shelby’s name bursts out of his mouth even though he’s still asleep, but she’s already on the fire escape waiting for the morning. She’s much too far away to hear.
Shelby has decided to go home for Christmas. She plans to bring the dogs, but not Ben. She says she doesn’t want her parents to get the wrong idea.
“What idea would that be?” Ben’s gotten a haircut, and his white neck looks naked and vulnerable. “That we’re a couple?”
“My father’s crazy,” Shelby says, dodging the issue of the meaning of their relationship. “He’ll interrogate you.”
“Let him. I don’t mind.”
“I do. Let’s just go to our own homes.”
Ben rents a car and drops her off at her parents’. It’s Christmas Eve and the houses in the neighborhood are strung with lights that flicker and cast red and blue patterns into the snow. There are no lights at Shelby’s, however. The place almost looks deserted. Snow has piled up, and it appears no one has shoveled the walkway.
“Are you sure your parents are here?” Ben squints as he tries to look through the front window.
Shelby points. There’s her mother opening the front door, waving cheerfully. Shelby waves back. “Told you so.” She slips on her backpack, opens the car door, and ushers the dogs out.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow at three,” Ben calls as Shelby navigates through the snow. “I’ll bring one of my mom’s pies.” Judy Mink is known for her baking. She made a wedding cake for her next-door neighbor that was photographed for Newsday. Unfortunately, Shelby hates pie.
She leaps through the drifts, carrying Blinkie. “Hello, stranger,” Sue Richmond says cheerfully as Shelby stomps her boots on the front porch. Shelby’s mom takes Blinkie and gives him a hug. “He’s so ugly he’s cute.”
“Ben?” Shelby says.
They both laugh, then go inside. There’s no Christmas tree. No decorations. Shelby looks through the pile of cards on the coffee table. A few are from neighbors, others are from her father’s business associates. Then there is a postcard with an intricate drawing of a maze. At the center of the maze is a question mark. Shelby turns it over to read the message.
Want something.
Shelby thinks she sees a tiny photo of herself clipped from a newspaper article about the crash pasted onto the card. The writer knows her so well. When she lost Helene, she lost her desire for life. Who is she to deserve something? How dare she want anything at all? She has a sort of burning feeling in her chest.
“I never really liked decorating the house,” her mom is saying. “It’s too much trouble. Who has time for that kind of thing? I always hated tinsel especially. You can never clean it up. Your dad got to the point where he forbade using it back when you were little.”
Shelby gazes around the room. Something is wrong here. “Where’s Dad?”
Sue is studying Blinkie. “This dog’s eye is infected.”
Nothing like changing the subject. Shelby goes with the flow. “The vet said he needs the eye removed. It costs a thousand bucks for the surgery, so I’m saving up.”