It's Always Complicated

By: Julia Kent

Chapter One


A small crowd of men wearing gun holsters ran past Josie and Alex, followed by three uniformed TSA agents.

“I wonder what that’s about?” Alex marveled, his eyes tracking the fracas. He and Josie had come to the Portland, Maine airport to pick up her mother, Marlene, and Aunt Cathy, Uncle Mike and her new Uncle Calvin. All the Ohio relatives were here for her and Alex’s wedding.

A cold wave of dread washed over her. They were running toward the baggage claim for the airline her entire family was on.

“I’ll bet it’s my mother,” she groaned, leaning against him for support. His strong arm wrapped around her shoulders and gave her the comfort she needed. Too bad he couldn’t give her a second backbone made of steel.

If he could, she knew, he would. The thought made her smile.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said, giving her a squeeze. She looked up at him. Way up, given the enormous height difference between the two of them. His warm, brown eyes met hers and for an instant, she wondered if he might be right. That eternally positive outlook he had was a bit infectious.

Maybe she needed to stop assuming the worst of every situation.

A rotund security guard huffed and puffed, running past them, holding what looked like a spare uniform. He was talking into a walkie-talkie.

“Naked?” Huff huff. “She’s naked? What size?” Huff huff.

Alex’s kind eyes filled with alarm. It was both charming and horrifying. Josie couldn’t quite decide which impression she enjoyed more. There was a kind of schadenfreude in realizing she was right. His idealism was sweet, but sometimes she needed him to be more of a realist.

And Marlene served up an entire buffet of realism.

“Mile High Club again?” the guard asked, pausing to catch his breath. Josie watched him with a morbid fascination.

“You don’t really think it’s your mom in there, Josie,” Alex said. He caressed her shoulder absent-mindedly, watching the guard. “I mean—”

“Two men in one bathroom with a naked woman?” the guard barked into his walkie-talkie, eyebrows hitting the brim of his hat.

Josie snorted, the sense of dread spreading.

“How could it be anyone else?”

“That sounds more like something Darla would do,” Alex said. “You sure she’s still in Boston and not on this flight?”

Just as Josie was about to reply, the commotion got louder.

“MARLENE!” Josie heard the sense of outrage in her Aunt Cathy’s voice. The airport was small, but not that small. Cathy’s voice could carry. “WHAT IN THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOUR CLOTHES?”

“It will be fine, he said,” Josie intoned, the “he” in question being Alex. “Have a wedding and invite your mother, he said.”

Alex just stared in the direction of Cathy’s bellowing voice and blinked like an owl.

“I suggested we just run off to Atlantic City and get married by a Trump impersonator with a drunk platypus as the witness,” she added. “But noooooooo. Some people had to have the whole traditional wedding thing.”

“That is looking better, I must admit,” he muttered.

“Which part? The Trump impersonator or the drunk platypus?”

Just then, the baggage claim carousel stopped turning. It made a pneumatic wheezing sound, then a series of mechanical groans, punctuated by a great metallic screeching noise.

The crowd of people waiting for their suitcases groaned, too.

Security guards and TSA agents flooded the baggage claim area, flocking to the door where the baggage came in on the conveyor belt, delivered from the cargo hatch of the plane.

The machine began again, then stopped. Started, then stopped.

And then the plastic curtain opened up and belched out Josie’s naked mother. The carousel continued moving, Marlene’s limp body sprawled out.

She wore a nipple clamp with a luggage tag attached.

“I am not claiming her. Nope. Nope nope nope,” Josie hissed as Alex stared, transfixed. Security rushed to cover her and it took four agents to carry her prostrate body.

“Is she conscious? She might need medical attention,” Alex said in his authoritative doctor’s voice.

“I am the Queen of the Double Mile High Club!” Marlene shouted.

“Oh, she’s conscious, all right,” Josie muttered.

“JOSIE!” Aunt Cathy’s shout pierced the air and distracted the crowd, who turned to watch her aunt bum-rush her.

“JOSEPHINE!” boomed Uncle Mike.

Josie nearly fell over from the shock of being hugged by both Cathy and Mike at the same time. They all pretended Marlene wasn’t being manhandled into a three-sizes-too-big blue uniform while screaming for someone to find her lost piece of peeled ginger root.

“Did she just say ‘ginger root’?” Alex murmured under his breath, as if puzzling that one out. Josie heard him, but didn’t have the heart to mention that she knew exactly what that meant, all thanks to Darla.

Who had recently read Grey, by E.L. James, and explained the precise significance to her.

“Alex!” Mike said, turning to her fiancé and shaking his hand with a hard and fierce grip. The two clasped and pumped arms for so long they might as well have just whipped out their penises right here to see whose was bigger.

Not that Josie ever wanted to think about that.

“Is anyone accompanying this lady?” one of the security guards shouted to the crowd.

Josie looked at Cathy and Mike. They all acted like they hadn’t heard a thing.

“Um, aren’t you going to say something?” Alex asked her.

“He said ‘lady.’ My mother hasn’t been a lady since—”

“She’s my sister-in-law,” said a calm, resigned voice.

Mike, Cathy, Josie and Alex all turned toward the person.

Uncle Calvin.

Who was frowning at Aunt Cathy.

“We have to claim her,” he said clearly, and without judgment. “She can’t help herself.”

“Oh, she helped herself all right, Calvin,” Mike thundered. “Helped herself to two of them college hockey players on the plane.”

A series of hockey duffle bags flooded the baggage claim carousel suddenly. Josie eyed the plastic curtain nervously, wondering if two naked hockey players would come tumbling out.

Then she just eyed it curiously. A little hopefully, even. Hmmm. Naked hockey players...

“Cathy!” Calvin said sharply. “We need to go and get her out of there. Once they understand about her, they’ll give her back to us.”

“Understand?” Alex asked.

Calvin smiled and shook Alex’s hand. “Alex! Congratulations, and good to see you.” He gave Josie a polite peck on the cheek, then turned to Cathy.

Who was arching her eyebrow so high, it might as well be the Gateway to the West.

“What do you mean, Calvin?” she asked. Uncle Mike tensed at her words, and Josie felt her senses sharpen, like that moment when you’re on a hike deep into the woods and realize you need to be a little more aware of your surroundings, but you can’t exactly explain why.

“We need to handle her with kid gloves,” he said.

“I’d recommend anyone put gloves on right now before they handle Marlene,” Cathy answered, wrinkling her nose.

“That’s not what I mean, Cathy, and you know it. We’re traveling here for Josie’s wedding and it’s our responsibility to make sure we take care of her mother in the best way possible so everyone can have a memorable family experience.”

Check that one off the list, Josie thought to herself. Memorable? Achieved.

Aunt Cathy looked a little shocked that Calvin wasn’t backing down. “Take care of Marlene?” she asked, eyes narrowing.

“You really oughtn’t make fun of Marlene like that,” Calvin said. It was evident that arguing with Cathy pained him. “She can’t help it.”

“Can’t help what?” Cathy asked, seeming as surprised as anyone to find herself at odds with her new husband. Josie froze, watching the two of them. Cathy was like a mother to her, and she’d never imagined Darla’s mother would ever marry. Watching them interact was fascinating. Like watching Animal Planet, only with humans.

“Marlene can’t help all her sexual...proclivities.” Calvin tapped the side of his head with his fist. “She’s, you know. Touched in the head. She had a traumatic brain injury, after all. She can’t help herself.”

Cathy peered at Calvin like he was peeling off his human outer shell and revealing himself to be an alien.

“What in the hell are you talking about, Calvin?” she asked softly. Josie’s back pulled up straight. The tone. Oh, she knew that tone.

That was the tone that said Darla was getting a whuppin’ for disobeying her mama. And to hear Cathy use it toward Calvin boiled up a mess of emotions inside Josie that felt icky.

“I’m saying that when Marlene was in the car accident and she got that brain damage, it messed up her head. You know the doctors told us she can’t control herself sometimes. And she has problems with executive...functioning? That’s what they said.” He faltered, frowning, clearly struggling to remember what the doctors had said.

Calvin looked at Alex like he was throwing a Hail Mary pass. “You’re the one who helped us get her a new evaluation with the neurologists in Cleveland and in Pittsburgh. The accident did this to her, right?”

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