There are technically three entrances into Aberdeen. Two of the entrances are from gravel roads leading out to endless acres of flat, prairie farmland and a few golf courses. I turn off the highway at the main entrance, abandoned grain elevators on my right, and a brand-new single-story office complex on my left. The juxtaposition of the new and old is a reminder of Aberdeen’s own internal battles.
I maneuver my jeep through the elm-lined streets, there is no such thing as traffic or rush hour in Aberdeen. I see a few seniors walking down Main Street, portable shopping-carts dragging behind them. I pull onto Thistle Lane, the street I grew up on. My parents were one of the first couples to build in this part of town, and the town hasn’t expanded beyond the boundary of Thistle Lane in the thirty years since. When my dad died Matt and his family moved into our childhood home. My mom continues to occupy the mother-in-law suite on the rare occasions that she spends time in Aberdeen, her preference to travel at every opportunity.
I pull into the driveway, the ranch-style home looming in front of me, with a perfectly manicured lawn, and a freshly painted fence. Instantly the feelings of elation and dread battle for ground in my gut. Through the living room window I see a cherubic face peering at me curiously – fire-red, curly hair sticking up in every direction.
Slowly I climb out of the jeep, bending deeply to stretch road weary muscles. I pull my suitcase from the backseat and start walking toward the front door that I have walked through a million times before.
“Aunty Anna,” a flurry of strawberry blond curls and freckles leaps in my direction wrapping her arms and legs around me. I drop my bag and steady myself, grabbing Rebecca’s waist to keep her from falling.
“Rebecca, don’t jump on people,” Katie, Matt’s wife, calls as she steps down the front porch toward us. Her eyes betray her good-natured tone.
“It’s ok. Hi Becky,” I set down my niece and give her a kiss on the top of her head. At seven she is tiny, and could easily be mistaken for five or even younger. Her hair is lighter than her sister, Erica’s, who I saw in the window, but they have the same striking silver eyes. She picks up the handle to my suitcase and starts dragging it behind her.
“I’m so excited you’re here, what should we do first? I was thinking that we could do a Barbie Dancing with Stars, or we could ride bikes to the Red Whistle and get slushies, what do you think?” She speaks so fast I have a hard time keeping up.
I look at Katie who has her arms crossed, ever the welcoming host, and back to Becky, “I thought maybe first I could come in, get settled and say hi to everyone, then we can decide. How does that sound?”
Becky looks put out, but recovers well, “I guess that would be ok.”
“Hi Katie, thanks for letting me stay a few days,” I say, giving her a quick, stiff hug.
“You know you are always welcome Anna, our home is your home,” She directs us into the entrance. “Matt’s not home yet, he had a meeting with the water board, you know a politicians day is never done.”
Last year Matt was elected to a second term as Aberdeen’s mayor. Katie likes to think of herself as a big time politician’s wife, living in one of the finer homes in Aberdeen. If we weren’t in Northern Alberta you would think she was a Southern Belle. I swear if I look in her closet I will find a lilac dress with crinoline, ruffles and a matching hat. The skirt on her wedding dress was so large and round, her tiny frame sticking out of it looked like a pitchfork sticking out of a hay pile. I still don’t know how she sat down. Even today, Katie looks the perfect housewife. Her royal blue circle skirt is perfectly complimented with a silk blouse, and her ginger curls pulled back in a low bun. In a town the size of Aberdeen it is hard not to take notice of Katie, with her waifish figure, and huge blue eyes, she looks like a red headed version of Twiggy.
Katie and I have managed to remain mostly civil to each other since her and Matt married. They were high school sweethearts, while we were high school enemies. We competed for everything, captain of the volleyball team, valedictorian, even top sales of Girl Guide cookies. And then, of course, when her and Matt became serious, we competed for Matt’s attention. He had been my best friend my entire life, as twins we did everything together, and ran everything by each other. That came to a serious slowdown when Katie and Matt got involved. I tired not to be the jealous sister, but my dislike for Katie made it near impossible to keep my pettiness to myself.
The cherub from the window skitters across the floor and hides behind her mother’s legs, her red curls betraying her hiding spot. “Erica, say hi to Aunty Anna. You remember her,” Katie insists. She is trying to pull Erica from around her legs, but the three year old is sticking like super glue.
Even though we Skype regularly, it has been six months since Matt and Katie came to see me in Calgary, I anticipated that Erica may be shy. I crouch down and pull a small box from my purse, holding it out in my open hand, “Hi sweetie, I missed you. I brought you something.”
She pokes her head around, her eyes full of intrigue, she tentatively reaches out with her hand.
“It’s ok, it’s for you,” I prompt, inching a bit closer.
As quick as a frog capturing a fly the box is in her hand, the lid ripped off. “A bracelet” she squeals in delight, throwing her arms around me, the silver loop dangling from her fingers.
To preempt any whining from Becky, I dig in my purse, with one arm still around Erica, and locate a second box, this one slightly bigger than Erica’s.
“For me?” Becky asks reaching for the box delicately.
Katie looks at me suspiciously, “You shouldn’t have done that. Now they’ll always expect presents when you come.”
“I don’t mind. I don’t get to see them near enough, if they expect presents then I bring presents,” I respond, watching Becky open the box to reveal an identical charm bracelet with a silver ballet slipper.
“Wow,” she gasps in aw.
“They’re charm bracelets, and we can add charms to them as you get older,” I stand up as Erica untangles herself from me looking at Becky’s bracelet. “Where’s your brother?”
“He’s with some friends at the ball diamonds. He’ll be home for dinner,” Katie says. I feel her eyes scan me, “You’ve lost a lot of weight. You look good.”
It’s not a complement. Nothing is ever a complement from Katie. It might sound like it, but really what she is saying is “huh, still fatter than me, and I still dislike you immensely.”
“Thank you,” is all I reply.
She is still looking at me intensely, I bend down to look at the girls’ bracelets with them when Katie says, “there’s something else. I can’t put my finger on it. But there is something else different about you. Did you do something to your hair?”
My hands involuntarily fly to my head, “Oh, probably since you last saw me.”
“I liked it better before,” Katie says. She turns and walks to the kitchen, the three of us trailing behind her.
I bring my hands down and cross my arms. It takes all my willpower not to snap, “Your opinion isn’t necessary.” But I manage. It’s cold. This house was always so warm growing up. It looks different too. The floors are new, a dark, wide planked hardwood has replaced the tile and the kitchen has been completely redone. What was once a quiet retreat far from the bustle of the city, is now foreign and uncomfortable. Katie starts pulling ingredients out of the fridge, putting a head of lettuce in the sink to wash.
I hear the door open and Matt boom, “Hello, family! I’m home.”
The girls scurry to meet their father in the entrance, squealing excitement. I hear Katie moan, “They’re never that excited to see me.”
I think of telling her no one is, then say instead, “It’s just because they see you all day. If you weren’t around it would be different. They love that you’re here for them.”
Matt walks into the kitchen. “Annalou!” He yells his nickname for me, grabs me around the waist and spins me in a circle. As he sets me down I grab the counter to steady myself, lightheaded from his spin, I don’t want to fall over. Matt started calling me Annalou, after my middle name Louise, when we were six and he discovered it drove me crazy.
“Hi Matty,” I smile. It has never seemed to matter the kind of mood I am in, Matt always inspires me to perk up.
He looks at me long and hard, “You’re too skinny, are you sick?”
“Matt, she looks good. She’s not too skinny, she’s no skinnier than I am,” Katie says. In her mind I’m sure she is defending me.
Matt has always been observant when it comes to me. But I’m so happy to see him, and the kids that I’m not prepared to get into this with him now. “I’m fine,” I say, walking around the island to distance myself from my brother, and to pull the lettuce out of the sink that Katie has been washing.
“That felt a bit avoidy, what’s going on?” Matt says. He comes to stand beside me.
“My god, Matt, leave your poor sister alone. She just finished a seven-hour drive, she’s probably exhausted. Leave us to make supper, would you.” This time I’m thankful for Katie’s intrusion.
It wasn’t long ago that I took Katie’s side against Matt, and it’s likely she hasn’t forgotten it. “Ok, ok,” Matt says, backing off and running with the girls to the patio.