The Future She Left Behind excerpt...
“Ammonium thioglycolate, also called perm salt, is murder on your hair.”
The famous courtroom scene in the movie Legally Blonde flashed through Katelyn Pratt’s mind as she sat in the Savvy Salon, listening to the stylist lecture her mother-in-law on the dangers of perming her hair too often.
Katelyn set her sketch pad aside and took her iPhone out of her purse. She Googled ammonium thioglycolate: a pungent, colorless, clear liquid that burns the eyes, nose, lungs, and may explode if subjected to high heat—that described Shirley Pratt to a T. She tapped the Wikipedia icon and continued to read. A chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics, bombs, pesticides and dyes. Dear God. These poisons had been seeping into her mother-in-law’s skull for years. No wonder the sixty-four-year-old was a walking, talking, toxic know-it-all.
“When you’re finished with my hair, Pam, maybe you could tame that horse mane my daughter-in-law wears on her head.”
The zinger rolled off Katelyn’s shoulders, and she resumed sketching the flower vase on the table next to her. Shirley detested long hair, and that was why Katelyn never cut hers.
“She’s under the dryer.”
Katelyn glanced up from her phone and smiled at Shirley’s hairdresser. “How long until you finish with her?”
“Forty minutes.” Pam’s eyes flicked to the styling chair, then back to Katelyn. “If she doesn’t give her hair a break from perms, she’s going to molt like a bighorn sheep.”
That wouldn’t be so bad if her mother-in-law shed her horns along with her hair. “I’ll mention it to her.” But Shirley wouldn’t appreciate the advice. The day she’d moved into her son’s house—not her son and daughter-in-law’s house—she’d made it clear that any comments regarding her age or appearance would not be welcome. The same rule, however, did not apply to Katelyn, whom Shirley criticized whenever the urge hit, which was pretty darn often.
“As much as I love taking her money,” Pam said, “she won’t do me any good if she ends up bald. I don’t want to see her in the salon before November.”
Five months from now? No way would a woman who refused to leave the house without makeup and a fresh manicure ignore her hair for eighteen weeks.
“I need to run an errand. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Katelyn stuffed the sketch pad into her canvas tote bag, then left the salon, ducking her head against the rain. A cold front had moved through St. Louis overnight, leaving early June feeling like late October. She drove Shirley’s silver Mercedes to the other side of the strip mall and parked in front of Henderson Drug. When she entered the store, she went straight to the Hallmark aisle. Her husband should be the one picking out a card for his mother, but she couldn’t remember the last time Don had been in town for Shirley’s birthday.
The pain-in-the-butt’s favorite color was blue, so Katelyn selected a gaudy pink card with neon orange and yellow smiley-face flowers. On the way to the register, she passed an umbrella stand and plucked a plastic rain cap from the display. Heaven forbid Shirley get her hair wet and ruin her perm when she left the salon.
While Katelyn waited in the checkout line, she browsed the retail gift cards. She assumed Don would bring his mother a gift from Japan, but Shirley had nothing to open on her actual birthday tomorrow. She selected a fifty-dollar Starbucks card. Gift cards were impersonal, but it was the begrudging thought that counted. Besides, she got credit for baking Shirley’s favorite cake this morning—chocolate fudge.
“Hello.” Katelyn set her items on the counter.
The teenage clerk ignored the greeting and asked, “Do you have a Henderson Drug card?”
Her discount cards for the various stores she frequented hung on the key chain for her Hyundai Santa Fe, which she’d left at the house after Shirley insisted Katelyn drive her car today. “Can I give you my phone number?” She recited the digits, then swiped her debit card.
A moment later the teen’s robotic voice said, “Thank you for shopping Henderson Drugs. Next, please.”
Katelyn returned to the salon in time to watch Pam spray a final layer of shellac on Shirley’s café au lait curls. While the two women settled the bill, she texted her son, Michael.
Hi, honey. Grandma Pratt turns 65 tomorrow. Don’t forget to wish her a Happy Birthday. Hope U R doing ok. Call me when U have free time. She added a heart emoticon, then hit send. Michael would eventually answer her—he always did.
A long, lonely summer loomed ahead of Katelyn. She’d been looking forward to spending time with the twins before they headed off to college, but the kids had made other plans. Michael had wanted to get a jump on prerequisite classes for his engineering major and had enrolled in summer school at the University of Michigan. He’d moved into his new apartment in Ann Arbor two weeks ago. Melissa had been accepted into Shirley’s alma mater, Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri, and she was traveling in Greece and Italy until mid-July with a group of incoming freshmen.
Shirley fake patted her hair. “What do you think?”
“Lovely.” The hairstyle looked the same as it always did—old-fashioned. Katelyn held out the plastic cap. Shirley put it on, then walked to the door.
“You forgot your purse.” Katelyn pointed to the counter and Shirley retrieved her handbag; then they left the salon.
Once they were on their way home, she asked Grumpy Cat, “Where would you like to go for your birthday lunch?”
“Nowhere.” Shirley acted as if she didn’t care about celebrating her birthday, but Katelyn knew better. If her father-in-law, Robert, hadn’t dropped dead from a massive heart attack three years ago, her mother-in-law would be partying in Kansas City with her wealthy friends. But a series of phone calls shortly after Robert’s funeral had prompted Don to invite his mother to live with them.
The first call had come from the housekeeper after she’d discovered the gas stove had been left on while Shirley had been out shopping. The second call had come from the bank after Shirley had failed to pay the mortgage two months in a row. And the third call had come from the pastor at Shirley’s church, who’d informed Don that his mother had put her credit card in the donation plate during Sunday services. Shirley’s slipups had worried Don and he’d insisted his mother sell her home and move to St. Louis. Katelyn remembered the conversation as if it had happened yesterday and not 1,112 days ago.
“My mother’s moving in with us,” Don said.
Katelyn hovered in the master bathroom doorway, watching her husband pack his toiletry bag. “You mean for a month or two while she house hunts?”
His gaze skipped over her. “It’s not like we don’t have room for her.”
“That isn’t the point.”
“What is the point, Katelyn?”
“Your mother doesn’t like me.” Don had joked when they’d dated in college that he’d been attracted to Katelyn because she had nothing in common with his mother. That was well and good when two hundred miles had separated them—not so well and good when they lived under the same roof.
“It’s not safe for her to live alone. She could burn the house down if she leaves the stove on again,” he said.
“It was one time, Don. Besides, it’s normal for someone to be forgetful after losing a loved one. Your father’s death was sudden and unexpected. Give her time and she’ll settle down.”
“I don’t want to take any chances with her safety.”
“Then move her into an assisted-living facility.”
“She’s not that bad off yet.”
“She’s been fine when I’ve talked to her on the phone.”
Don ignored her protests. “The kids will enjoy having her around.”
Katelyn left the bathroom and threw herself across the bed. There was no shortage of adjectives to describe her mother-in-law. Opinionated. Bossy. Snooty.
Don sat next to her on the mattress and put on his shoes. “You’ll be busy with the twins and that art group you belong to. I doubt my mother will get in your way. Besides, she’ll make her own friends and go off with them.”
Don had been dead wrong. Since moving in with them, Shirley had made zero friends. None. Nada. Zip. The woman had made no effort to connect with others her age and had even snubbed the ladies’ bridge club after Katelyn had begged her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Krantz, to invite her into the group. And as Katelyn had predicted, after a few months of processing her husband’s death and the move to a new city, Shirley’s memory appeared fine except for the normal signs of old-age forgetfulness like not remembering the date or where she set her purse.
“Your mother’s fine,” she told Don three months after Shirley had moved in with them. “She baked a cake yesterday for the kids and remembered to turn off the oven. And she’s been running her own errands and finding her way back home. She’s ready to move into her own place.”
“She just got settled with us and now you want to kick her out?”
A thump in the hallway caught Katelyn’s attention and she’d poked her head out the bedroom door, but there was no one in sight. “Will you please broach the subject with your mother and see how she reacts?”
“I’ll talk to her when I return from my trip.” Don kissed Katelyn’s cheek, grabbed his suitcase and left the house. The next day Shirley took the car to run to the grocery store; then two hours later Katelyn’s phone rang.
“Is everything okay?” Katelyn asked.
“I don’t know where I am.”
“Didn’t you go to the grocery store?”
“I must have taken a wrong turn.”
“Where are you right now?”
“In a parking lot. There’s a donut shop and a cleaner’s.”
“What’s the name of the cleaner’s?”
“Fresh Press Laundry.”
The business was only four blocks from the house. “Stay put. I’ll be right there.” Katelyn had driven to the shopping center and then made Shirley follow her home. From that day on, her mother-in-law asked to be chauffeured everywhere. When Katelyn suggested seeing a doctor, Shirley had thrown a hissy fit.
The sudden memory loss had Katelyn wondering if the older woman had eavesdropped on her conversation with Don. But then the following week, Shirley misplaced her wallet and appeared genuinely distressed. They’d torn up the house searching for it, but hadn’t found it until the following day when Katelyn took an empty detergent bottle out to the recycle bin and discovered the wallet sitting on top of the garbage can. How it had ended up there was a mystery that had never been solved, and Katelyn had been forced to accept that Shirley’s occasional forgetfulness wasn’t intentional and that her mother-in-law would be living in her home for the foreseeable future.
Once the queen bee knew she wouldn’t be thrown out, she’d gleefully assumed the role of the de facto matriarch of the Pratt clan. Katelyn had complained to Don, insisting he put his mother in her place, but Shirley had emerged from those talks believing she still outranked Katelyn—no doubt recognizing that Don had acted as his wife’s messenger.
It wasn’t until Melissa asked Katelyn why she bickered with Grandma all the time that she realized the twins had been paying attention to the power struggle between their mother and their grandmother. She cared more about what her kids thought of her than her mother-in-law, so she’d backed off and chosen her battles wisely and when the kids weren’t around.
“Let’s have your birthday lunch downtown at the Old Spaghetti Factory.” Katelyn turned the wipers up a notch.
“I’d rather wait and celebrate when Don returns.”
Both Katelyn and Don were only children, and in Shirley’s eyes her son could do no wrong. According to her, Don not only walked on water—he invented it. Katelyn got along fine with her mother, Birdie, but they weren’t close. Often a couple of weeks would go by before one of them called to check in.
“Denny’s offers a free birthday lunch,” Katelyn said.
Shirley’s mouth puckered and Katelyn swallowed a laugh. Her mother-in-law had high standards when it came to food.
She turned off Delmar Boulevard onto Westminster and a block later pulled into the driveway of their 1907 Classic Revival–style home. The four-thousand-square-foot house included a finished basement, four bedrooms and three and a half baths—plenty large enough for five people to wander around without bumping into one another. Not. The idiot who’d renovated the place had added a guest suite on the main floor near the kitchen, making it convenient for Shirley to overhear conversations and phone calls. Katelyn parked the car in the circular drive.
“Why aren’t you pulling into the garage? You don’t have any appointments for the rest of the day.” Amazing how Shirley forgot where she set her purse, yet she memorized Katelyn’s personal calendar every morning on her way to the coffeepot.
“I might decide to go out later.” Katelyn collected the drugstore bag and her tote, then got out of the car and waited for Shirley. “Be careful on the wet steps.” She followed behind. “Pam’s banishing you from the salon until October.”
Katelyn twisted the knife a little deeper. “Pam said your hair’s starting to thin at the crown.” If she didn’t get in a few jabs once in a while, she’d explode and say something she couldn’t take back.
They entered the house and Shirley removed the rain cap, then dropped it on the chair next to the door. “You should change your hairstyle to something more age appropriate.”
Oh, this was rich. The Betty White look-alike telling Katelyn she needed a makeover.
“You’re too old to wear your hair halfway down your back.”
“Since when is forty old?” Katelyn hung their jackets in the hall closet.
“The brown color looks nice on you, but the longer length draws attention to your . . .” Shirley’s gaze dropped. “Your hips aren’t your best feature.”
Katelyn ignored the criticism, because she derived immense pleasure from knowing that Shirley was powerless to force her to change her hair. Every year she considered trying a new style, then nixed the idea, reluctant to give up the one thing that drove her mother-in-law nuts.
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Katelyn breathed a sigh of relief when Shirley retreated to her bedroom. She’d enjoy the peace and quiet while she made the frosting for the birthday cake. The recipe came from her grandmother’s cookbook, which Birdie had given to Katelyn on her wedding day. Speaking of mothers . . . She peeked at the calendar on the kitchen desk. Birdie turned sixty on June twenty-first—two weeks from today.
It had been more than three years since Katelyn had flown home to Little Springs, Texas. After Shirley had moved in and turned their lives—mostly Katelyn’s life—upside down, it had been all she could do to get through each week, let alone plan the next one. With the kids gone for most of the summer, she intended to ask Don if he’d schedule a week’s vacation and entertain Shirley while she visited Birdie.
After collecting all the ingredients, Katelyn combined melted chocolate squares, butter, vanilla flavoring, sour cream, water and powdered sugar into a bowl, then flipped on the mixer. The sound of the beaters brought back memories of her mother baking a cake every Sunday morning and then letting it cool on the counter while they attended church.
Katelyn had grown up a latchkey kid, and because both her parents had worked, she’d spent much of her childhood alone, playing with Mack, the stray Rottweiler that had wandered into the yard one afternoon and had never left. Mack hadn’t been allowed inside, but her father had built a house for him to use during the winter. In the summer Mack slept beneath the front porch to escape the heat.
By the time Katelyn had entered junior high, Mack’s muzzle had turned white. Her father had predicted the dog wouldn’t survive another winter. Mack must have known, too, because he’d died the day before Halloween that year. They’d buried him in the backyard near Birdie’s yellow lantana plants. Katelyn’s cell phone rang, interrupting the poignant memory, and she shut off the mixer.
Melissa. “Hi honey. Everything okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom. You worry too much.”
Busted. Katelyn admitted she was a helicopter parent and proud of it. After the twins had been born, she’d made a vow to stay involved in their lives and become their champions—unlike her own mother, who’d been too tired from her job to keep track of Katelyn’s hobbies. And when Birdie wasn’t cashiering at the Buy & Bag grocery store, she could be found working in her garden, not attending her daughter’s extracurricular activities. Katelyn might have gone overboard making sure her kids had everything they needed to succeed. Don’s job as the executive vice president of logistic operations for NicorTrune—a company that produced chemicals, fibers and plastics used by other manufacturers—required him to spend several weeks a month overseas, and she’d felt compelled to double down on her efforts to make up for his absence.
“I wanted to wish Grandma an early happy birthday, because I can’t call tomorrow.”
“We’re touring Pompeii and I’ll be gone the whole day.”
“Grandma’s napping, but I’ll tell her you wished her a happy birthday. How are you doing? Are you getting along with the other girls? What are you eating?”
Melissa laughed. “Which question do you want me to answer first?”
“I don’t care. Just keep talking. It’s good to hear your voice.”
“I’m having a great time and so far the weather’s been decent.”
It didn’t sound as if Melissa missed home at all. As soon as the thought entered Katelyn’s mind, she chastised herself. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d been as eager as her daughter to venture out into the world.
“OMG, Mom, the guys over here are hot.”
“No hot guys for you, young lady.”
“Has Jared called?” Jared and Melissa had dated their senior year but decided on an amicable breakup when Melissa left for Italy. Katelyn understood only too well the difficulties of letting go of a first love.
“Jared hasn’t phoned. Is he supposed to call?”
“I thought . . . never mind. If he stops by, tell him I’m having a great time abroad.”
“Do you want me to tell him the boys over there are hot, too?”
Melissa groaned. “How’s Michael?”
“Fine, I guess. He hasn’t called home yet for money.”
“Is Dad around?”
“He returns from Japan on Friday.”
“Tell him I said hi.”
“I will. How are you doing with your money? Do you need more?”
“I have plenty. Mom?”
“Don’t say no right away.”
“Sara Kerns invited me to stay with her after we return to the States in July.”
Melissa had met Sara during the orientation meeting for the trip and the two had become fast friends. “Doesn’t Sara live in Georgia?”
“Is Jared the reason you don’t want to hang around St. Louis the rest of the summer?”
“Maybe. It’ll be so awkward, Mom.”
Katelyn understood. When she’d broken up with her high school boyfriend, Jackson, during her first semester of college, she’d avoided going home, wanting to spare them both the awkwardness of running into each other.
“Sara’s family owns a horse farm and you know I’ve always wanted to learn to ride.”
“I offered to set you up with lessons when you were ten, but you changed your mind.” Katelyn had taken Melissa to a horse stable on the outskirts of St. Louis, but the huge animals had scared her and she’d asked to take dance lessons instead.
“Sara said they have a really old mare that I can learn to ride on.”
Katelyn hated not seeing Melissa until school began in late August, but she didn’t want to stand in the way of her daughter chasing her dreams. “Are you sure you don’t want to come home?”
“Positive. And Dad won’t care, because he’s gone all the time. Please, Mom.”
“As long as it’s okay with Sara’s parents, you can stay with them.”
Melissa squealed. “It’s going to be the best summer ever.”
“I’ll change your plane ticket when—”
“I can do it.”
Katelyn bit back a sigh. She’d been looking forward to taking her daughter shopping for school clothes and spoiling her with a girls’ day at the spa before she left for college. Melissa had begun getting her hair highlighted in ninth grade and mani-pedis had become a monthly habit. Michael always had the newest video-game system and cool athletic shoes. Katelyn had wanted only to give her children what she’d never had. The twins knew they were spoiled, but so were their friends at school. Fortunately, they’d never abused their parents’ generosity or seriously rebelled.
“I gotta go. Tell Grandma I miss her.”
“I will. Love you.”
“Love you, too, honey.” As soon as Katelyn set the phone on the counter, she received a text message from Michael.
I’ll wish Grandma a happy birthday tomorrow.
Katelyn wasn’t letting her son off the hook that easy.
What are you up to? she texted back.
On my way to the gym. Gotta go.
Call this weekend. Your dad will be home.
Love you XXOO