If every family has a certain kind of music, Abby's is the murmur of sympathy around a dining room table. It starts in the pause after dinner and before dessert, when the men migrate to the living room and turn on sports and the women surround the wreckage, spilled crumbs and crumpled napkins and stained wineglasses. They pinch lids from sugar bowls and dip teabags in hot water, break cookies in half and chew slowly. They trade stories of other people's hardships. This is the melody, the measure, of her family: the response to sad things.
"Fifty-six years old," her mother is saying.
This story is one Abby already knows. One of their neighbors, Mr. Whelan, collapsed and died the day before Christmas Eve. A stroke. Fifty-six. Two sons in college. Terrible. They shake their heads. A shame.
Abby arranges her face into a sympathetic expression, but she is thinking about Eric Winn. Mara had heard that he might be in Boston tomorrow, at the party. It was at Chris Teppler's house; Eric and Chris both played on the JV hockey team. As Abby watches her mother talking, she wonders if Eric Winn could be sitting around right now with his own familyin a house somewhere in Canada. Is he thinking about the party? Could hepossiblybe thinking about her?
Then her sister, Meghan, enters the room, and their mother stops talking about Mr. Whelan, because the night he died Meghan was so upset she couldn't sleep. "Football is stupid," Meghan announces, probably hurt that the boys aren't paying attention to her. She tags along with them relentlessly, especially Joey, the cool one.
"How about some dessert, Meg?" their mother says, extra brightly, just as Elena runs in and flings herself around Meghan's knees.
"Elena!" Meghan exclaims, scooping her up in both arms and hoisting her awkwardly onto one hip. "Do you want a cookie, Elena? Do you, cutie?" she says, doing her best imitation of a grown-up, and before Aunt Lauren can protest, one moment dissolves into the nextElena taking a big bite of a snowball cookie, Meghan marching back downstairs with Elena in her arms, the kettle whistling, the baby beginning to cry.
"So," Aunt Margie says, and turns to Abby, wiping two powdery fingers on the napkin in her lap. "When are you heading back?" The party is at Aunt Margie's house tonight, hers and Uncle Joe's, and it's marked by all the usual Aunt Margie things: the chalky pink and green mints on the coffee table, the onion dip in the snowflake-shaped bowl, the wooden Jesus hanging on a cross above the toaster oven.
"Tonight," Abby says. "After this."
"Oh?" Aunt Margie reaches instinctively for the little gold cross around her neck, worries it between two fingers. She has the same pink, freckled complexion as Abby's motheras Abby herselfbut where Abby's mother is tall, broad-shouldered, Aunt Margie is slight, tense and thin. "Tonight? Really?"
"But only to New Jersey," Abby explains. "One of my roommates lives in New Jersey. Tomorrow we're going to Boston. For New Year's Eve."
Her aunt is nodding, still rubbing the necklace. Abby doesn't mention the party, not after all her mother's questionswhose house and where does he live and will his parents be home? She'd had to lie about that last part (Mara had re- ported that Chris's parents would be out of town), though to mention Chris Teppler at all felt a little like lying, or at least pretending, Chris Teppler who Abby had never spoken to directly and who almost definitely didn't know her name.
"It's just two hours," Abby adds. "To New Jersey, I mean."
"And when are you coming home again?" Aunt Margie asks.
There will be other questions, but these will be the main questions, asked over and over tonight and for the next twenty yearswhen are you leaving and when are you coming home again?
Excerpted from The Blessings by Elise Juska. © 2014 by Elise Juska. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. by Elise Juska. Copyright © 2014 by Elise Juska. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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