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Excerpt for Learning to Breathe

Brenna drove from St. Andrew's Catholic church to Kathleen's house with her nephew Timmy, Colleen's eldest, riding shotgun.  Although she'd never admit it to anyone, because she really did love all her nieces and nephews, eight-year-old Timmy was her favorite.  He had hair the color of Halloween pumpkins and freckles that dotted his face from forehead to chin and if the Olympics had a category for worrying, Timmy would be a three time gold medalist.

His parents had taken him to a child psychologist to find out why his personality bordered on the glass-half-empty side of the fence, and to teach him how to cope with life, but nothing had seemed to stick. 

But, to Brenna, Timmy was amazingly introspective for a child, and his biting sense of humor always made her seek him out.  She claimed that because she was his godmother, it was her duty to spend more time with him than the others, and everybody seemed accepting.

Timmy was so much like herself, it was obvious to Brenna that his personality was a genetic thing and unlikely to change.  Watching Timmy clutch the door handle of the car as he stared wide-eyed out the windshield, she said a prayer of thanks once more that her father was not around anymore to browbeat a grandchild into being the type of boy Patrick O'Brien deemed worthy of being his grandson. 

As she pulled her Volkswagen up to the curb in front of Kathleen's house, she narrowly missed being sideswiped by a careening red Lincoln with white wall tires.  The Lincoln flew up the curb and into the yard, landing squarely with two wheels in the grass and the vintage car neatly pinning the mailbox under the front bumper. 

Leaping from her car, Brenna called back to a white-faced Timmy, "Don't worry—it's only Aunt Dottie."

Before she even reached the driver's side, Aunt Dottie was pulling herself, her large straw hat and over-sized purse out of the car.  Smoothing her navy blue polka-dotted dress, she peered up at Brenna through coke-bottle glasses, the magnifying effect of the lenses making her green eyes the size of lime lollipops.

"Hello, dear.  I suppose Kathleen moved her mailbox, because I always park here and I never recall it being in that location before."  She squinted toward the front of her car.  "Well, I thought I saw a mailbox."  With gloved hands, Aunt Dottie took the large hat off her head and stared at it closely.  Giggling to herself, she placed it back over her white-haired bun.  "When I forget where I'm going, I always check my hat.  This is my Sunday hat and I'm either going to church or Kathleen's."  She squinted her eyes at Brenna.  "Since you don't look like Father Joe, I guess I must be at Kathleen's."  The old lady looked around.  "But I wish she hadn't moved that mailbox.  Now I won't know where to park anymore."

Brenna took her arm and guided her up the front walk, followed closely behind by Timmy.  "Aunt Dottie, I thought we already had a talk about your driving.  I think it's time you allowed yourself to be chauffeured.  You know that I'm just a phone call away."

The old woman waved a hand through the air.  "I can drive just fine—as long as I only need to see straight ahead since I can't seem to see anything on the side anymore.  And I don't drive at night at all.  Too much reflection in my glasses."  She stopped suddenly, looking frantically on the cement of the walkway behind and in front of her.  "Where are my glasses?   I can't see and I can't drive home if I don't have them!"

Calmly, Brenna said, "They're on your nose.  I think maybe we should have another heart-to-heart."

Peering closely into Brenna's face, and blinking her magnified eyes, Aunt Dottie replied, "Are you married, yet?"

Timmy chuckled behind her as she pulled on the old woman's arm a little more forcefully than necessary, and led her aunt up the stairs toward the front door.  Ignoring her aunt's last question, Brenna said, "Let's go get you some sweet tea and get you settled, and then we're going to have our little chat."

The door opened and Kathleen stood in the doorway, smiling at them.  As her gaze strayed over their heads toward the Lincoln and the remains of her mailbox, the smile dimmed but remained bravely in place.  With kisses all around, Kathleen ushered them into the entrance hall, the smell of roasted chicken and simmering gumbo wafting from the kitchen.

Kathleen's middle daughter, Marie, a miniature version of her mother and a near mirror image of Brenna, appeared and took possession of Aunt Dottie, leading her into the front parlor where a televised baseball game could be heard in stereo. 

Brenna wiped a smudge of flour from her sister's nose and rubbed it on the bold red apron Kathleen wore that proclaimed her "Queen of the Kitchen."  It had been a gift from Brenna when she was still in high school, acknowledging her oldest sister's Martha Stewardesque abilities.  Kathleen hadn't managed yet to layer their inground swimming pool with cut-up credit cards, but Brenna felt sure it was on the agenda.

"Thanks, sweetie."  Kathleen put her arm around her sister and led her into the huge gourmet kitchen, a gift from her husband John on their twentieth-fifth anniversary.  Although sixteen years separated Brenna and her oldest sister, their build and bearing was identical and, except for the extra lines at Kathleen's eyes and forehead, they could have passed for twins. 

Brenna paused on the threshold, staring at her sister's neck.  She reached up to finger the sparkling necklace that Kathleen wore, whistling softly.  "Woo-eee.  I didn't know this had become a formal occasion.  That sure is a fancy piece of jewelry you're wearing."

"Shh, Colleen might hear you.  She got a quantity discount on Ebay on these genuine diamonelle necklaces so she bought one for all of us.  You'll have to put yours on, too, or her feelings will be hurt."

"Great.  I really need a necklace like that.”  She popped a cheese straw in her mouth, her eye closing in pleasure.  "Do you think Colleen is only ordering that stuff to hide an affair with the UPS man?  I mean, he's there every day making a delivery."

Kathleen didn't smile.  "That's not funny, Brenn.  And talking like that is a great way to start ugly rumors about your sister."

Brenna was spared from responding by the opening of the kitchen door.  Claire and her husband, Buzz, breezed into the kitchen, followed by a flash of color and noise that Brenna recognized as the twins PC and Mary Sanford as they ran though the kitchen and into the hallway to find their cousins.

Buzz offered a brief greeting before heading out in the direction of the TV and the company of his brothers-in-law.  Claire eyed a crab-stuffed pastry but didn't touch it, instead reaching for a raw carrot sitting on a vegetable tray.  "How was your date last night with Buddy Halpert?"

Brenna stared at Claire for a long moment, wondering again if the four women she called her sisters were really on her side.  "You could have mentioned that he was missing a leg."

Claire dug around the vegetable tray with a long, red fingernail.  "I thought you'd figure that out yourself when I told you that the guys at work nicknamed him Stumpy."

"It never occurred to me.  Otherwise, I never would have suggested that we go roller skating."

Kathleen seemed to be choking and quickly covered her mouth with her hand.

Claire crossed her arms over her ample chest, her whole demeanor that of someone completely affronted.  "I didn't think it would matter to you."

"It doesn't!  It was his annoying habit of chewing tobacco and spitting it wherever he deemed fit that I found so objectionable.  I'll never get the juice off my white slacks—and they were my favorite."  She popped another cheese straw in her mouth.  "I should send you the dry cleaning bill."

Kathleen came over and put an oven-mitted hand around Brenna's shoulder, her smile not completely hidden.  "I'm sorry.  I'm sorry about Chester Anderson and I'm sorry about last night.  You know we only want you to be happy."  She glanced up at Claire who had slipped a cheese straw from the platter and was now shoving both it and a carrot stick into her mouth. 

Brenna kissed her oldest sister on the cheek before pulling away.  "Thanks—really.  But maybe it's just not meant to be.  And maybe you all should just take a break from all this matchmaking.  I know how exhausting I'm finding it, and I can only imagine what it's doing to y'all."

With a hand covering her full mouth, Claire said, "Um, you might want to wait on that.   Colleen and Bill met some guy in Biloxi last weekend who has family in the area and they invited him to come today and meet you.  I think she said his name was Elvis."

Brenna rolled her eyes.  "Thanks for the warning.  I'll go make myself a plate of food and lie low for a while."

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