I didn't choose the wench life. The wench life chose me.
When I pulled into the parking lot of Willow Creek High School on that late-spring morning, I had very little on my agenda. No doctor's appointments for my big sister, no school obligations to shuttle my niece to. The only thing I needed to do was get my niece to the sign-ups for the Renaissance faire. We were five minutes late, so it was going great so far.
Caitlin huffed from the back seat as I threw my little white Jeep in park. "Em, we're late!" She managed to stretch both my name and that last word out into at least three syllables. "What if they don't let me sign up? All my friends are doing this, and if I can't, I'll—"
"They'll let you sign up." But of course she was out before I'd even unbuckled my seat belt. I wasn't going to call her back. I didn't have that kind of authority over her. At barely ten years older, I was more a big sister than an aunt. When I'd first come to stay with my older sister and her daughter, April had tried to get Cait to call me "Aunt Emily," but that was only a short hop away from Auntie Em and Kansas jokes so we'd abandoned it quickly. My relationship with the kid had settled into more of a friendship with overtures of Adult In Charge.
This morning, Adult In Charge was kicking in. No way was I leaving a fourteen-year-old by herself in a strange situation, even if it was her high school. I grabbed my coffee mug from the cup holder and started after her. She couldn't have gone far.
My cell phone rang from inside my purse when I was halfway across the parking lot. I fished it out and kept walking.
"Did you find it okay?"
"Yeah, we're good. Hopefully this won't take too long."
"Oh, God, you don't have to stay." April sounded slightly horrified by the prospect. "You just need to drop her off and come back home."
I held my breath and tried to analyze her tone through the crappy cell phone connection. The past few days had been rough as she'd started weaning off the pain medication. "Everything okay?" I tried to sound as casual as possible. "Do you need me to come home?"
"No..." Her voice trailed off, and I stopped walking and listened harder.
"No, no, Emily. I'm fine. I'm right where you left me, on the couch with coffee and the remote. I don't want you to feel like you have to..."
"It's fine. Really. Isn't this why I'm here, to help you out?"
Another pause. Another sigh. "Yeah. Okay..." I practically heard her shrug. "I feel bad. I should be doing this stuff."
"Well, you can't." I tried to sound as cheerful as I could. "Not for another couple months at least, remember? Doctor's orders. Besides, this 'stuff' is what I'm here for, right?"
"Yeah." A tremble in her voice now, which I blamed on the Percocet. I'd be glad when she was off that shit for good. It made her weepy.
"Drink your coffee, find something awful on television, okay? I'll make lunch for us when we get home."
I hung up, shoved my phone back in my purse, and once again cursed out the driver who had run the red light that night. A vision of April's SUV popped into my head, that twisted lump of silver metal at the junkyard, and I pushed it aside. Caitlin had been asleep in the back seat, and somehow she'd walked away with nothing more than some bruises and a sprained ankle.
My sister hadn't been so lucky. Mom had stayed with her while she was in the ICU, and by the time April was home from the hospital a week later I'd moved in, so Mom could go home to Dad in Indiana. My older sister needed a caregiver for a while, and my niece needed an Adult In Charge who was mobile, so I was here to stay.
As for me...I needed a change. A couple weeks before the accident I'd lost not only my boyfriend and my apartment, but all my plans for the future. Willow Creek, Maryland, was as good a place as any to lick my wounds while I took care of April and hers. Smack in the middle of wine country, this area was all rolling green hills dotted with small towns like this one, with its charming downtown storefronts and friendly people. Though I hadn't seen any willows yet and as far as I could tell there weren't any creeks, so the name remained a mystery.