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The California government relinquished all pretense of protecting adoptees as far as Tori was concerned. Pretending they sealed adoption records for the security of all parties involved was utter bullshit. The adoptive parents, sure. The birth parents, definitely. The adoptees? Not so much.
While her clients, the Butlers, whispered upstairs in the empty stucco house wedged into the Berkeley Hills, Tori read through her options again on her phone. She’d already submitted the form to match up with her birth parents ages ago. So far not even a nibble from birth mother nor father. To most, that might be a hint they didn’t want to be bothered, but Tori didn’t see it that way. Maybe they wanted to reach out but felt contact wouldn’t be welcomed by her. She could understand fear of rejection. She was facing that reality, herself. What she couldn’t understand was giving your flesh and blood away and never looking back. Never caring what happened to a precious babe in the world. No, Tori refused to believe anyone who’d contributed an egg and sperm to create her could ever be so heartless.
She checked the time, chewing on her lip. Only thirty minutes to wrap this up and get to Oakland. Practice started promptly and her band did not play around. They’d fine her…again. Pretty soon she’d owe them money. It’s not like they were raking in the gigs anyway. They did okay, but nothing that paid the bills full time. Not that she’d want that. Tori had a compulsion to play guitar and enjoyed the hell out of it. She’d never want to sully that by making it her profession. She and the other band members were like-minded in that way.
Unfortunately, she wouldn’t have time to change out of her dressy slacks and thick cable sweater. The year had just gotten underway and as the night got closer, the temperature dropped considerably. Going home to her condo and changing into jeans and a warm hoodie was out of the question so she’d make do with what she had. By the time practice got good and going, she’d be plenty warm.
Light footsteps fell on the wooden stairs, and the couple finally descended. Mrs. Butler cleared her throat and looked at her husband then to Tori. “We’d like to make an offer.”
Tori smiled and nodded. At least being late tonight would be worth it. “Excellent. I’ll email you everything we’ll need and alert the seller’s Realtor an offer is on the way.” She looked around and her gaze landed on the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city below, and the ocean beyond. “I think you’ll be very happy here.” Tori’s bank account definitely would be very happy.
Once she’d wrapped up with the Butlers, Tori raced to the Jewish Community Center where her band held practice. Aunt Leah, who was technically her mom’s best friend, not biologically her aunt, secured the spot for them after Tori joined the band the year before and didn’t care for practicing in the empty warehouse space they used. It wasn’t safe and even more expensive than the JCC.
Before Tori could pull into the parking lot, she opened the glove box and removed a printed sign with her band name, Everyday People, an ode to a famous Bay Area band from the sixties and seventies and placed it in the front window.
The security guard waved her through.
She parked, but before she could open the door to her car, the phone in her hand vibrated. She sighed and accepted the call after reading Elizabeth Matheny aka Mommy on the screen. She was tempted to ignore it, but Mom would probably come looking for her. “Hi. What’s crackalackin?”
“Just calling to check on you and remind you about dinner tomorrow.” Mom worked on campus so she must have been wrapping up to head home. While in undergrad, Tori worked in the registrar’s office which was nice for not only its proximity to classes but to her mother as well.
There’s no way Tori would ever forget dinner. She had the date circled on her desk calendar at home since her favorite aunt scheduled the rare visit. “I’m looking forward to it.” When Tori was a little girl, her aunt was a constant although super busy. First in college then medical school, then Doctors Without Borders or MSF for short. Eventually she joined a lucrative private practice but still devoted a certain amount of time to MSF. Dr. Melanie Thompson was Tori’s personal hero even though she’d never been moved to pursue medicine.
“Have you thought about the Jefferson boy?”
“He’s thirty, Mom. Hardly a boy. And no, I can find my own dates, thanks.” Tori had grown up in a family of strong women. Strong and determinedly single women. They didn’t need a man and neither did she. Dating was fine, but she was always up-front with her intentions and bowed out before anyone caught feelings. Going out with Mom’s coworker’s son was not a good idea.
“Fine, I’ll stop pushing him on you. Oh, don’t forget you’re taking Maxx to the vet day after tomorrow.”
Tori smiled to herself at Mom’s quick change of subject. “I won’t forget. I already made sure I don’t have any appointments in the afternoon.”
“I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Hard same, Mom.” As an adoptee, Tori was grateful she had such an amazing mother who’d picked her. The feeling was definitely mutual, and even if she found her birth family as had become her mission, she would always count Elizabeth Matheny as Mom and her number one. “I’m late for practice, but I’ll call you when I get home.”
“Okay, sweetheart. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
Tori ended the call and stepped from her car. She took a moment to breathe in the chilly air. She hadn’t discussed her need to find her birth family with Mom, but before she got too far down the road, she needed to have that conversation.
Surely Mom would understand.
The Black population in Berkeley had dwindled considerably since Mom brought Tori home from the adoption agency, but somehow her mother maintained the small two-bedroom home Tori had grown up in. Tori expressed silent gratitude Mom was secure every time she pulled into the driveway.
Tori closed the door on her dark-blue Prius, a college graduation gift from Aunt Melanie nearly four years ago. When Tori finished high school, she took a gap year that turned into two then four. Mom gave her space to explore what her calling in life might be. Aunt Melanie financed it. Mostly. Tori did loads of odd jobs to try out industries she might be interested in. She led hikes for a guide company through the High Sierra of Yosemite for a few months, but even though she adored the outdoors, guiding wasn’t her passion. Next she decided to paint houses in Michigan where one of her high school friends lived because painting was one of Tori’s many hobbies, but painting houses was totally different. And although she loved being around and helping people, she only lasted a week waitressing in Miami. Customers could be surprisingly rude. She eventually got her real estate license and with its flexible schedule and decent money, that job finally stuck. For now.
Tori had returned to school to earn a degree in music which was the one constant in her life. Besides family.
One other car sat in the driveway, an older Lexus that still had its shine, which meant Auntie Amy was here. And probably her cousin, Sharon, too. They traveled in pairs. Exclusively. Hopefully Aunt Melanie rode with them from her hotel.
As Tori tread the short walkway to the house, she pulled her coat tighter against the sudden wind gust. Before she reached the door, another car pulled up and parked on the street in front of the house. When the headlights turned off, Tori squealed. “Aunt Melanie.” She did a shimmy and ran across the grass to engulf her aunt in a huge hug before the woman could get out of the car good.
“My my, look at you, beautiful.” Melanie stood back and took her in. “I can’t wait to hear everything you’ve been up to since I saw you last summer.”
“Last summer. That’s too long, Aunt Melanie.” She pulled out of the hug but captured her aunt’s hand in hers. “I’ve been up to plenty though. I want to hear about you first though.”
“I guess I’m just chopped liver.” Leah lumbered around the back of the car, leaned her cane against the trunk, and opened her arms.
Tori let go of the hand she was holding and slid into the outstretched arms, giving Aunt Melanie’s best friend a tight hug. She resisted the tears that threatened to leak when the woman was barely able to squeeze back. “You’re looking great, Aunt Leah.” A small sob escaped Tori’s throat.
“Liar.” She tapped Tori on the shoulder but smiled. “Stop crying. I’m better than the last time you saw me though.”
Melanie squeezed Tori from behind. “You were always so sensitive. Leah’s okay though.”
“You’re right. Tons better than the last time.” She released Leah and grabbed up each of their hands, leading them to the front door up the driveway. Tori slowed her pace to accommodate Leah, grateful the woman was able to walk at all considering the terrible fall she had while trying to clean her gutters. Tori didn’t know why Leah had even attempted such a thing, considering she had two sons, but they always seemed too busy to help their mother. She and Asher were nearer in age, having grown up together and never gotten along. He was always driven and didn’t care for Tori’s laid-back way of life. Unfortunately for Tori, because he was an adoption attorney and she could probably use one of those. She’d never ask him though.
Then there was Ethan. Four years younger and the peskiest pest there ever was. He’d followed Tori around endlessly when they’d been kids, drawn to her musicality. She caught him with the first guitar she ever owned—a desert sun-yellow Ibanez electric. He hadn’t meant to ruin it, and Tori chalked it up to the guitar not having been meant for her, but deep down, it stung. She’d forgiven him, of course, but Ethan took it hard. Especially because his parents had just divorced and his father moved to Los Angeles. It was a mess and Ethan couldn’t be consoled. After that, he stopped following Tori around and barely spoke to her.
Tori opened the door and waited for her aunts to go through. She really hadn’t thought about Ethan in years. He was off saving the world or something last she heard. Just like their idol, Aunt Melanie.
More screeches met Tori as she closed the front door and turned to the chaos of hugs, kisses, and general love. Tori smiled and joined the fray, greeting Amy, Sharon, and finally a last squeeze from Mom.
Tori was also met with the scrumptious smell of foil-wrapped chicken. “Oh my gosh, Mom, you made chicken?”
Melanie let go of Sharon and turned to her sister. “You shouldn’t have, Liz. They’re so labor intensive.”
Mom shrugged. “I could order a pizza if you’d rather.” She raised her brows.
“You wouldn’t dare.” Melanie followed that with a light tap on Mom’s shoulder. “You know you spoil us.”
“You’re never here to spoil.” Tori practically whined, then caught herself. Although she missed her aunt so much, she also understood the woman’s drive and commitment. Melanie’s dedication is what Tori admired about her aunt the most. They were so different, but the qualities Tori lacked really drew her to Melanie. “Scratch that. We’re happy to have you here. I just wish Mom asked me to help her.”
“I’ve been making these since before you were born, Chile. I can wrap them in my sleep. Besides, Amy and Sharon helped.” It was true. Mom met her best friend, Mia, in elementary school. The girls often had sleepovers at one house or the other, and eventually Mia’s mom taught the girls how to make foil-wrapped chicken because they both loved it so much. Mia’s mom was tired of doing all the work so she enlisted the friends. Mom had been making the yummy dish ever since. Because Melanie was ten years younger, she’d been eating the dish since she was barely walking. And of course Tori had never known a world without the best chicken in the whole world. At least to her.
Amy, ever the middle sister, clapped her hands together. “Cut it out and come on in here and eat. Don’t forget to wash your hands.” She winked and rotated back to the dining room.
Everyone took turns washing their hands in the hall bathroom, but Tori went to the one in Mom’s room. She’d had green tea on the way over, and it was already making itself known.
Maxx greeted her when she opened the bedroom door. “Hey, buddy. Mom’s got you locked in here. You ready for the vet tomorrow?” He gave her side-eye then slowly backed away, wedging his big self under the bed.
Once dinner was over, and Tori rubbed her full belly, she turned to her aunt. “Do you want to do breakfast on campus, Aunt Melanie?”
“I’m running some errands and having a late lunch with Leah but how about a movie in the evening?”
Tori whooped with delight. “Oh, there’s a new 4D theater in the city. I’ve been anxious to go.”
“Then it’s a date. See what’s playing and let me know what time.” Her aunt smiled, eyes twinkling. “What do you think about a little after-dinner entertainment?”
Pretending to contemplate, Tori bit the side of her lip in thought. Then busted out laughing. “I thought you’d never ask.” She ran to her car and popped the trunk, then lifted out the guitar case. She always had at least one guitar in the car even though it probably wasn’t the best idea exposing it to seasonal conditions.
When Tori strolled back into the house, everyone had moved into the living room. Aunt Melanie dragged in the high stools from the breakfast bar and both she and Tori each perched on one.
Tori readied her acoustic guitar. “What are we thinking?”
“How about requests? Anyone want to hear something in particular?”
Leah shouted out, “‘Tears in Heaven.’”
Mom turned her way. “What we’re not going to do is celebrate anything to do with that man in this house. Hello?”
“Hello.” Amy smirked and tilted her head.
“What’s wrong with Eric Clapton?” Leah was truly perplexed. She dug her phone out of the pocket of her jeans and searched. “Oh. Never mind. I’m always the last one to know anything.” She shook her head and released a mirthless laugh.
“How about ‘Photograph’ by Ed Sheeran?” Melanie glanced at her family.
Her family mumbled back. Mom said, “I don’t think I know that one.”
Tori bumped her aunt’s shoulder. “I do.” And she played the opening chords.
Melanie came in on the first verse then they traded and sang some together. Although they had never played the song together before, Tori and her aunt fell into easy partnership.
“That was beautiful. I love those opening words about the difficulty of love.” Melanie’s gaze lingered on Tori, eyebrows raised in question.
Tori only shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, Auntie.” Then she launched into another song.
End of Excerpt