“Have you been to Marion County before?”
I tucked one foot underneath myself, grateful for the change in conversation. “No. Actually… I’ve only been outside of Tallahassee once, and that was to go to spring break at PCB.”
He glanced over, surprised. “You’re kidding me. The only place you’ve ever been is Panama City Beach?” He said the tourist destination as if it was crud in the bottom of a trash can.
“My mom didn’t raise us to travel.” That was an understatement on a nuclear scale. I thought of Mom’s meltdown when she’d found out about my spring break trip, the way she had locked herself in her bedroom for three days straight, punishing me with a litany of facts about teenage pregnancies and date rape drugs. I had come back one weekend and a dozen missed calls later to find that she’d shaved her head, a result of her yanking out strands in patches.
“I can’t believe you haven’t ever gone anywhere else.” He pushed back the brim of his baseball cap and scratched his head. “It seems like a waste of a trip, taking you to the middle of nowhere.” He glanced over at me. “Where have you always dreamed of going?”
“I haven’t ever really thought about going anywhere,” I answered without really considering the question, but it was true. Even with Ansley and our new inheritance, we hadn’t traveled ten miles outside the Leon County line. It was like we were still stuck in Mom’s rules or would be violating her memory by stepping outside of them. Not that I felt guilty about tagging along with Declan on a sweaty and bug-filled camping trip. But if Ansley and I booked tickets to Tahiti, clinked champagne in first class seats, and read novels poolside, the ocean glittering before us—all on Mom’s dime? I would hate every second of it. I’d feel like I was dancing in high-heeled shoes on her grave.
I tried to think of how to explain it all to Declan. But thoughts of Mom, her impressions and impacts on us… it was like a tiramisu. Horribly intricate. Sweet with an almost bitter aftertaste. Good in small amounts only. I weighed different stories to tell him and finally, reluctantly, told the most impactful one of all:
The story of the HappyTie Corporation, and Mom’s secret fortune.
Our mother was Debra Littlefield Jones. Graduated from University of Florida in 1984 with a degree in chemical engineering, and immediately hired to work for the HappyTie Corporation.
Declan hadn’t heard of HappyTie, which didn’t surprise me. Most people hadn’t. For us, it’d been a household name, one typically muttered as a curse. Momma had been promoted through their ranks, and eventually landed on HappyTie’s new product development team. According to her, and typically after four or five drinks, she’d invented the Happy Dye Tie, which was a head wrap that kept women from turning grey. She’d invented it, pitched it, and been shut down.
Years later, the HappyTie Corporation fired Mom, due in large part to her increasingly hostile behavior regarding every new product rolled out that wasn’t the Happy Dye Tie. She never forgave them for it, never got over the slight, and never came in contact with an HTC product without lighting it on fire.
“She lit them on fire?” Declan interrupted the story. Tearing open a bag of peanuts, he offered me some.
I took a handful. “Yep. It was why we were—and probably still are—banned from Burger Kings. That one on North Monroe, just north of I-10?” I waited on him to nod. “When I was twelve, we were eating lunch there one Sunday when mom realized that the cup lids were Forth brand, which is owned by HappyTie. She snatched a lighter from a lady sitting in one of the booths and proceeded to light the entire stand of lids on fire.” I smiled at the memory, which had been horribly traumatic at the time, but had eventually faded into a comical story. “It was a mess. They didn’t light very well, and let off this putrid odor as they melted together. It was a pretty weak attempt at arson until the stack of napkins caught the flame. Then… whoosh.” I raised my hands in a re-enactment of the blaze. “The sprinkler system went off, the police and fire department were called, and Ansley and I spent two days with a social worker before they agreed Mom was a fit parent.”
Declan had an odd look on his face, a mixture of horror and sympathy, and I waved him off. “You have to understand, for us, chaos was normal. Ansley and I protected each other. We watched out for each other. Mom’s activities… we just learned to avoid them. To do things that calmed her. To avoid things that didn’t. Occasionally… like when I went to Panama City for spring break… or when Ansley got married, one of us would act out—but for the most part, we all worked as a cohesive unit. Ansley and I were a team, and Mom was the loose cannon that we worked together to control. Or…” I struggled to find a better word than control. “Manage. Pacify.”