Driving Miss Crazy
The insistent beep of the microwave timer sounded from the kitchen.
Adrian Adams checked his watch. “Whoops. There’s the backup timer, kiddo. We’ll have to go through the checklist again on the way to the door.”
“It’s raining, Dad.”
“It could clear up. Sunscreen?”
“Dad, I’m wearing them.” Charlie, his seven-year-old daughter, sighed. “They’re on my feet. Look at my feet, Dad. These are my boots.”
Adrian looked down at her blue-eyed, elfin face staring up at him. His little girl’s dark brown hair peeked out from under a bright yellow rain hat, the perfect match for her yellow Dora boots, which were, sure enough, on her feet.
“See?” For a moment, Charlie’s exasperated expression reminded him so much of her mother it stole his breath.
Then he checked his watch again. “Well, let’s just hope you have everything else for school.”
“If I don’t, it’s probably in the emergency pack you put in Mrs. Tibbet’s office.”
Adrian thought a moment. “Right. I’m wondering if maybe we should have another emergency pack in the gym office with your inhaler in it?”
Charlie sighed again. “Why don’t you just use one of the emergency packs from the car?”
“No, we have to have two in case you go on a last-minute overnight.”
“You never even let me go on one overnight, even to Uncle Danny’s.”
“We’re going to be late.” Adrian grabbed her waterproof backpack and the lunch box he’d filled with as-healthy-as-possible stuff, and led the way out the front door. Their simple brownstone here in Cathedral Heights was a little large for just two, but it had been in the Adams family for decades and held a lot of memories. Sometimes more than he cared to think about.
“Can I ride in the front?” Charlie pleaded as she followed him down the stairs. She jumped in a puddle on the sidewalk with both feet, making a deliberate splash.
“No, you ride in the back. It’s safer.”
“But then I can’t choose the music and you always play that old music and it drives me crazy.”
“Hey, the Beatles are classic and timeless.” He tossed her lunch and backpack into the opposite seat. “You’ll thank me someday when you have an appreciation for real music.”
Charlie climbed into her booster seat, and Adrian buckled her in, the back of his blue driver’s uniform absorbing the scattered, cold drops of light spring rain.
“Miss Tutti says Murzart is real music and she makes us play it on the recorder and we stink.”
Adrian adjusted the straps on her car seat. “Miss Tutti is a hundred years old. She wouldn’t know good music if it dropped on her head like a piano.”
Charlie’s eyebrows arched with interest. “Can I tell her that?”
“Of course not.” Adrian shut her door and slid behind the wheel of his company’s Mercedes S550. “Unless she gives you a bad grade this semester,” he muttered.
He started the car, checked all the mirrors twice, and pulled out into the street as the rain-sensing wipers began whumping across the windshield. As a driver for Hallmark Sedan Service, he knew pretty much every side road, one-way street, and unmarked alley in the whole Washington, DC area.
It was early spring, and the cherry blossoms were just starting to bud—the best time of year in the capital next to fall. Of course, he always thought of Karen when he thought of cherry blossoms. Every spring she would cut a few branches from the small, brave tree in their tiny front yard and place them in the vase on the front hallway table. The blossoms—her favorite—were the first thing you smelled when you came into the house. That and whatever new dish Karen had created for dinner.
Adrian smiled at another memory. He had never thought oven-fried pickles would be good, but they were.
He turned onto Easton Road, which meant Charlie’s school was only two blocks away. Spring was always a little bittersweet for them both. Losing a wife was bad enough. He figured a little girl losing her mom was probably worse. But Charlie never seemed to let it get to her.
It wasn’t like she never talked about it. Charlie kind of wore her heart on her sleeve. Even though it was hard for him to hear her talk about Karen so glibly sometimes, the counselors said it was better that way, so she didn’t keep everything all bottled up inside. He definitely didn’t want her to end up on some sour psychiatrist’s couch someday, blaming life for taking her mom from her, having run off to join some cult in Montana that worshiped endangered chipmunks or something.
It had been over four years now, and Charlie seemed to be doing okay, but he wasn’t going to take any chances with her. There was nothing wrong with playing it safe. If that meant no sleepovers at other houses or wearing kneepads when she rode her bike, so be it. One big heartbreak in life was enough for anyone.
He pulled into the drop-off lane of Van Allen Elementary School. He got out to get the door for Charlie while she unbuckled herself.
“Here we are, miss,” he said with a fake British accent after opening her door.
“Thank you, Jeeves,” she said as she hopped down, just as she always did. “I would give you a tip, but I’m only seven and I don’t have a job yet. Maybe if you let me work at Aunt Beth’s candy store?”
He shook his head. “You’d eat her out of business.” He thought for a moment. “You know as long as I’m here—and I’m going to be here for a long time—you’ll never have to worry about anything, right? I’ll always take care of you.”
Charlie smiled as she hoisted her backpack on her tiny shoulder. The speech was familiar. “I know, Dad. Bye.”
“I’ll see you to the door.”
Her shoulders slumped. “You don’t need to. It’s right there and Mr. Coggin is there and my friends are there and you’re going to embarrass me again.”
Adrian stopped. “Again? Since when do I embarrass you?”
Charlie just gave him a dirty look that somehow still seemed sweet and then headed up the two steps to the door.
Adrian’s phone was vibrating in his pocket. He fished it out and saw it was his work number. He answered while watching her chattering with one of her school friends as she went through the school’s open double doors. Maybe he should mention tighter security to the principal?
“Hey, Kevin,” Adrian said into his cell. “What’s up?”
“Are you on your way in?” his co-worker asked on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, just heading over. Why?” Adrian got in the car and started it. “I’m not late yet.”
“No, it’s not that. I thought I’d just give you a heads up. I think Martin is going to talk to you. I just overheard some stuff, and I didn’t want you to get blindsided.”
“What stuff?” Adrian’s brow furrowed.
“About your route and your hours. You know, the same stuff they brought up last fall.”
Adrian rotated the wheel and turned back onto Easton after checking for traffic. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Great. First the medical expenses and now this. The last thing he needed was more bad news.
MAGGIE MACNALLY WRESTLED A PARTICULARLY LARGE BOLT of green chenille off a top shelf in the backroom of Bella Bella, the custom dress shop where she’d worked for her old college roommate for the two or so years she’d been back in DC. She struggled to balance the fabric on her shoulder as she descended a shaky stepladder.
“That emerald green looks great with your hair, girl,” Jelly said from the doorway to the sales area. “I should design a dress for you.”
“I don’t have anywhere to wear a fancy dress,” Maggie said through the pins in her teeth as she stepped off the ladder. She carried the bolt to the cutting table and brushed a cobweb out of her short black hair. “And you’re already busy enough anyway.”
“Speaking of which, can you come help me up front? A couple of mannequins in the window look like they’re trying to hit on each other. They keep slipping.”
“Sure thing.” Maggie had been helping Jelly at the design studio/store in between attempts to find a steady job in the family trade of politics. Born prematurely in the States when her parents were briefly stationed in Washington, she had been raised in Ireland, where she was fed a steady diet of diplomacy by both her parents and grandparents. A moderately successful four years here at Georgetown had not only given her a diploma but a best friend and roommate in Jelly. Her family had hoped she would follow in the their footsteps, especially her grandmother, now the Ambassador of Ireland to the United States. She had struggled to find her niche back in Ireland after college. It always seemed like the rest of her family moved naturally in the world of meetings, hand shaking, and long lunch conversations about “Corporate Risk Registers” and corrigenda to this and that. She had always found it somewhat boring, to be honest. Now, as an automatic US citizen and with the help of her influential grandmother, she was trying to take advantage of her unique situation. Unfortunately, her attempts at developing a political career in the US had also been less than stellar, as a string of failed minor jobs procured by her grandmother had proven.
She’d considered Bella Bella only a stopgap job, a way to put her hobby of sewing for fun to temporary use and repay Jelly for giving her a place to stay. She was mildly surprised to find herself a “natural” (as Jelly called her) at making Jelly’s brand of sophisticated yet fun clothing.
Jelly popped her head back in the room. “Now they’re doing the splits. Not the look I was going for.”
Maggie dropped what she was doing and hurried to help.
Jellico Jones had owned Bella Bella for three years, a venture she started right after she completed a hard-won Professional MBA at the nearby Kogod School of Business. Short yet feisty, she had already gathered a reputation as a local designer with a casual, fun flair. Her creations graced the closets of some of the more cosmopolitan residents in Georgetown, and her Jelly line of handmade scarves was making inroads into some of the area’s tonier boutiques. Maggie knew her friend was sinking everything she made back into the shop, and it showed—from the stylish window settings to the slightly funky interior. It was classy but also trendy, and its sunny location on Thirtieth Street brought in a fair amount of walk-in traffic. It wasn’t the main drag like M Street, but Jelly planned to be there someday.
Maggie helped battle the ornery mannequins and then followed Jelly, picking her way carefully over the short railing, out of the display window, and back inside the store’s main display area.
Jelly wiped her dusty hands on her pants. “Put that on the list of new things we can’t afford—mannequins. These things must be holdovers from the disco era.”
Maggie straightened her shirtsleeves and blew a loose strand of hair from her forehead. “I don’t know how you do it. There’s so much to take care of. The customers, the inventory, making the clothes.”
“Don’t I know it. I’m so glad you showed up here last fall. If I didn’t have you to help, I’d be underwater.” She thought for a moment. “Did I tell you I’m working on a deal with Chestnutt’s over on Potomac? They want to feature a few of our infinity scarves.”
Maggie beamed. “Jelly, that’s terrific! Someday I’ll be able to tell everyone back home ‘I knew her when.’ “
Jelly feigned surprise. “You aren’t leaving me, are you, girl?”
Maggie laughed. “Of course not. I don’t think so.” She was thinking. “At least, not for a while.”
Jelly’s smile disappeared. “What do you mean? You got something new planned? Is it another store?” Her eyes grew wide. “It’s not with”—she affected a snooty accent—“Elizabeth Hand at Dory & Hunk, is it?”
Maggie laughed again. “No, I don’t think I could manage wearing a tutu. And what does she have her salesgirls wearing on their heads?”
“Red berets. No, excuse me.” She affected the accent again. “Raspberry berets.”
Maggie wrinkled her nose. “So shabby.” She grew a little more serious. “But... I don’t know...”
Maggie sighed. “I haven’t had the best track record when it comes to kick-starting a career the past couple of years.”
Jelly shrugged. “Takes some people a little longer to find their niche. I had to waitress at The Cloverleaf for two years while I worked my way through business school.”
“That’s just it. You knew what you wanted to do. I don’t know what I want to get off my butt and go do at all. It just seems so easy for the rest of my family.” Her parents back in Ireland were well known as movers and shakers in the Irish Parliament. Even her cousin was a political party head.
“Well, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. At least, you can eliminate all the things you didn’t like. Or that didn’t involve a visit from the FBI.”
Maggie folded a scarf. “The Commonwealth Office job? That was just a misunderstanding.”
“I’ll say. I don’t think the Turkish embassy delivers pizza.”
“I told you, someone in the office gave me the wrong number. Besides, they didn’t have to be so rude. I was just trying to order lunch.”
“You probably had an expired two-for-one breadsticks coupon.”